Investing in all-electronic tolling (AET) keeps drivers moving, improves highway safety and takes strain off highway networks through reduced overall congestion — which are only three of the reasons why 2017 was such a major year for new and conversion AET program roll out. What have been some of the key takeaways so far?
Prepare for volume. Preparing for change is key. Agencies can mitigate some of the challenges by planning and executing extensive customer outreach prior to the conversion to AET. Your customer service center has to be prepared for a major spike in contacts. The transition to AET puts agencies into direct contact for the first time with customers who have long been anonymous cash payers. They’ll have questions. They may be confused by the change from their long-standing approach to paying tolls, and not all of them will transition smoothly. As mailers, payment notices, and collections go out, more calls will come in. Initially, these calls may require lengthy discussions, which in turn increases hold times, which strains customer service agents and can create customer dissatisfaction. Training and expanding temporary staffing to smooth out these surges can help preserve confidence in the AET program and greatly improve the likelihood of its successful acceptance.
Optimally, a proactive communications push should be planned at least three to six months ahead of AET implementation. Increasing transponder penetration through outreach, advertising and communication can reduce the volume spike that is otherwise inevitable with AET roll-out.
Get to know your drivers. As mentioned above, to a toll system that allows cash payments, a certain segment of the customer base is largely invisible. When customers pay cash, you don’t have any sense of history or relationship with them, and no way to measure their habits or travel patterns except in very broad aggregates. AET provides greatly improved insight into who uses your roads, and when, which, in turn, will help you plan future system improvements with greater accuracy in meeting actual need. But there may be growing pains in the meantime.
Many cash customers are cash customers because they are unbanked. A disproportionate percentage of your current cash payer base operates outside of today’s financial system. Many do not use credit or debit cards, and lack bank accounts and the means to automate payments. They pose different and complex challenges — in terms of both communication and service — than those who have embraced electronic transponders.
Again, planning ahead is key. A communication plan should be established to provide alternative forms of payment for unbanked customers who prefer to stay unbanked while gaining access to AET. Retail load cards, retail merchant payment relationships, Google Wallet, Apple Pay, and similar alternatives can smooth the path to AET for customers who have only used cash before—and letting them know about these alternatives in advance is essential to reducing phone calls and other contacts that otherwise produce a volume surge.
Make sure your business rules and your language are both clear. Customer understanding is essential: for example, using the term “cashless” to describe your system can trigger issues. A significant number of customers optimistically translate “cashless” to mean “free,” leading to frustration for both agency and driver when the payment-due and collection notices start rolling in.
If a customer has always paid with cash, their first bill may come as a complete surprise. In the event they fail to pay, back charges and fines that increase the amount owed can quickly spiral into an issue much larger than the initial violation. Give careful thought to your business rules – reasonable and enforceable standards will make a big difference both initially and in the long run. If the AET program includes managed lanes, an even higher standard of understanding must be met so your customers understand how the fare structure works and can efficiently manage their trip.
AET is not without its challenges. The good news is that all of these challenges can be overcome. An agency’s customer service center, walk-in offices, and technology teams should be in sync on the goals for clear and extensive customer communication. No two AET implementations will be the same. Learning from past experiences and selecting partners with strong AET backgrounds are important ways to set your agency up for success.
By working strategically together with careful preparation, planning and goal-setting for all stakeholders, you can greatly ensure the short- and long-term success of AET.