Any first-year marketing undergrad can tell you that successful selling comes from building trust and listening to customers. So, why are many U.S. banks, telecom companies and utilities turning a deaf ear to the majority of consumers who say getting paper bills and statements is important to them?
Just about anybody can tell you that the push to go paperless is really about cost savings. In fact, 84% of people in a recent Two Sides survey agreed that paperless bills and statements are being promoted to reduce costs. But how much does cost cutting benefit the bottom line if companies are losing customers as a result? In that same survey, 64% of consumers said that when they’re shopping for a new service provider, they would skip companies that don’t offer the option of a paper bill. Nearly six in 10 also said they would refuse to switch to e-bills and statements or would not take any action if asked to do so.
Most consumers aren’t buying the companies’ “go paperless, go green” marketing claims either. According to the survey, half of consumers do not believe, feel misled by or question the validity of such claims. Nearly three quarters, 72%, believe that when print on paper is responsibly produced, used and recycled, it can be an environmentally sustainable way to communicate. The survey also found that about a third of people who receive electronic bills and statements print them out at home, so the claim that e-billing is paperless isn’t really true in many cases.
Some may believe that a single survey doesn’t provide enough evidence to make the case for any particular point of view, but even the most skeptical observer can’t deny the growing body of research that shows consumers want a choice when it comes to paper versus electronic billing. In a national survey conducted by Consumers for Paper Options, 80% of consumers said it’s not okay for companies to force electronic-only bills and statements on their customers. 87% agree the main reason companies want to shift customers to electronic delivery formats is to save money, not to be environmentally responsible. Similar sentiments were expressed by Britons in surveys conducted by Two Sides U.K. and Keep Me Posted, a broad-based coalition of organizations whose members depend on postal mail.
To me, the decision to continue offering free, paper-based billing options is a no-brainer, especially in industries like telecommunications and banking where competition is fierce. Consumers have made it pretty clear that paper bills and statements are an important option they want to keep. When the research data show that even a majority of technology savvy under-25 year olds share the belief that paper options should be preserved, billing companies must ask themselves three important questions:
- Can we truly afford to ignore the majority of our customers?
- What will be the long-term reputational (and potential legal) implications if we willfully disenfranchise the nearly 30% of American households that don’t have regular internet access, including 45% of seniors who don’t own computers (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2011)? and,
- How long will it be before the U.S. Federal Trade Commission takes notice of the vague, unsubstantiated environmental claims we’re using to disguise our cost-saving efforts?
I’m certainly not suggesting that e-billing is a bad thing – it has a lot of positive benefits, including convenience. But most consumers want and many need paper options. Companies that dismiss this fact risk losing business. And those that continue to use unverifiable claims like “go paperless, save trees” as a green cloak for cost cutting risk greater scrutiny by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Kathi Rowzie is a Two Sides guest blogger and a sustainability communications consultant with The Gagliardi Group in Memphis, Tennessee.
For information on the successful Two Sides educational campaign that is helping leading U.S. companies change their messaging to meet best practices for environmental marketing as outlined in the U.S. FTC Green Guides, click here.