It has happened to almost everyone. The bill comes in the mail — or maybe via email reminder — and the customer says, “Oh, I have to pay this,” then puts the bill down on their kitchen table or desk. Days pass, stuff piles up and, before the customer knows it, the due date has come and gone. Now, they owe the original bill, plus the late fee.
Amazon Pay Vice President Patrick Gauthier told Karen Webster in a recent interview that billing is one of those areas in which, once the company put a little research in, Amazon quickly found a problem begging for an Alexa-powered solution.
“This really rose to the forefront for us,” Gauthier said. “We saw that paying bills is something that people in America really do not like to do, and that it is something they are really not managing well.”
The first part of that is understandable. Who wants to pay bills when they could be doing something much more fun with that money? For the second part, the management is more surprising — since automation through the digitization of bill payments in the last decade should have theoretically solved the management issue. Instead of having to remember to pay a bill on time, consumers can just set them to autopay on a certain date, and let the magic happen in the background.
In Europe, Gauthier noted, set-it-and-forget-it is, more or less, the standard operating procedure for most consumers. Auto payments are how the majority of bill payments get done. The U.S., however, is an entirely different animal in that regard — 70 percent of Americans do not use automated bill pay, even though it is an option. They simply don’t want to do that.
That is why Amazon Pay decided to tap Alexa to turn bill payments from a chore into a value added part of the Amazon ecosystem.
The Utility In Utility Bill Payments
To make bill pay via Alexa possible, Amazon is partnering with FinTech firm Paymentus — a crucial team-up, Gauthier noted, because of the depth of its biller directory. On Day One, consumers can pay online or via voice using Alexa with over 90 percent of U.S. utility providers.
Paying the bill, though, is just one part of the solution. Users can receive notifications from Alexa when their bills are due, and they can ask questions about them. The goal, Gauthier explained, is to give customers what they want: the desire to feel in control of their bills. The reason U.S. customers don’t pick auto pay is because of the friction it can create when bills are set to autopilot.
Consumers like knowing how much a bill is, and the details associated with it. That helps them decide when to pay it in a way that manages their cash flow throughout the month — particularly important for the vast majority of people living paycheck to paycheck.
In addition, consumers like the certainty of knowing that the cards on file to pay those bills are still active. Many consumers who have tried auto pay in the past have needed to change the card linked to their billing accounts, and forgot about making the change. For those consumers, finding that out in a more proactive way than a threat to turn off the electric or water service is a real value-add.
“The desire for control leads to a situation where there is no strong mechanism for helping customers to manage their bills. That tends to lead to unhappy and expensive endings,” Gauthier said.
He explained that Alexa can also become a helpful source of information for how consumers monitor and optimize their consumption of utilities. Information about peak consumption times and use cases provide useful insights for the many consumers who’d like to manage their consumption more closely, and do more to manage those costs.
“We prioritized utility bills over other types of billing because they are ubiquitous in people’s lives. That is why it was such a good first step,” he said.
First step, but far from the last.
The Bigger Future
While paying bills is extremely new, the vision for Alexa and Amazon Pay’s roles in the broader bill pay arena is still evolving. That might mean a future where, for example, customers can schedule future payments via Alexa, or where consumers who prefer to pay their bills with cash can do so by digitizing it into Amazon Pay. Some of those issues are under development. Others (like cash inclusion) have many complex compliance efforts tied up in them.
Products, Gauthier noted, especially products at Amazon, evolve once they get into the hands of consumers — not to mention their needs and special friction points emerge to be soothed. Amazon Pay’s donation engine started helping customers steer funds to their favorite charities — it was developed to do things like aid specific campaigns, such as the “Shaq To School” effort to procure school supplies for underprivileged kids. From there, the engine was able to be adapted to its latest expansion: allowing users to leverage Amazon Pay to donate to political campaigns.
The progress of bill pay, he explained, will likely be similar. Amazon will start with utilities. Where the company goes from there is all a matter for where the customer wants to go next.
“We will watch what the customer does, listen to what they tell us and see how we can evolve it to their needs. When we keep that as our North Star, we can augment what we have available today, and raise the bar from a community standpoint,” Gauthier concluded.
Amazon will move into a whole new set of high-value payment flows, from consumers to an entirely new type of business, with a little help from Alexa.