Getting your bills paid: The persuasive power of a smiley face

Bills. We all get them and all businesses send them, so let’s look at what you can do to encourage on-time payment using the lessons of Behavioural Economics. After all, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than chase late paying customers?


1. Use social norming to persuade

In the US a utility provider trialled a number of different strategies on utility bills to encourage a reduction in energy consumption. First they included a comparison of your usage to that of your neighbourhood. People who had above-average consumption felt shamed enough to reign in their consumption – good news! But those who had had below average consumption suddenly realised they could relax a bit, which saw their energy consumption rise toward the average. Bad news.

What was happening here? People are powerfully persuaded by what others are doing, both right and wrong. While this trial was effective in curbing the energy-hog behaviours, it didn’t work with the lighter-users.

So the utility provider went back to the drawing board. Realising the influential power of what others are doing, they tried another tactic. To the usage comparisons they added one small feature on the bills of the below-average energy users: a smiley face. Those who were using less energy than their neighbours were now being acknowledged for their positive efforts, and through this, persuaded to continue. Don’t underestimate the power of 🙂

When it comes to on-time bill payment, you can use the same logic. Imagine a bar graph in the corner of your bill which compared average days to finalise the account along the lines of the following:

For notorious late payer XYZ Co this could help influence their behaviour towards the average.


On the other hand, so that early payer ABC Co doesn’t get sloppy, you would include a reinforcing smiley face on their account.


2. Use on-time payment discount rather than late payment penalty

The telecommunications provider I am with threatens a $15 penalty for late payment. My utilities provider on the other hand, offers me a 5% discount for paying on time.


Which do you think is more positively regarded by me as a customer? The on-time discount offer is a much more constructive method of persuading people to pay their bills by the due date, and this is thanks to the impact of loss aversion. In this case, it is painful to forgo the discount offered so I make sure I pay on time. If I don’t, I am to blame. In the late-fee example, I still may pay on time but that is because I hate the policy. If I get charged the fee, the company is to blame.

Make your bills work harder so you don’t have to

Chasing overdue bills is a time sucking, painful task for businesses. Using your billing paperwork to influence the bill payer will hopefully alleviate some of your pain. Happy billing.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at,[email protected] or by following @peoplepatterns. Bri’s book, “22 Minutes to a Better Business”, about how behavioural economics can help you tackle everyday business issues, is available through the Blurb bookstore.


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