paperless billing makes people happyA recent survey of 5,000 nationally-representative adults, sponsored by NACHA, the National Automated Clearing House Association (a group of companies in the payments industry) asked the question: Why do people go paperless when it comes to receiving and paying their bills? The answers:
  • It's easy to access my statements online -- 62%
  • To reduce clutter -- 50%
  • To help the environment by reducing paper waste -- 49%
All valid points notes James Van Dyke, President of Javelin Strategies, which fielded the research. His team had been, in fact, looking for answer number three in this survey, entitled PayItGreen. What it found was a surprising silver lining.

Going paperless – banking online, receiving bills and statements online, and paying those bills online – makes people happier. It reduces dissatisfaction with the companies sending those bills, be they cable providers, municipalities billing for water usage or plain old banks, by half.

"Even though some people hang onto paper like its some kind of crazy life preserver, when you get rid of the paper you are much less likely to be upset with any of the companies you deal with," Van Dyke shrugged.

What's up with that? Psychologist Catherine Birndorf, co-author of the book The Nine Rooms of Happiness, says you can't underestimate the effect of the physical clutter that the piling up of bills brings. "Their physical presence brings you down because the meaning of the mess is right there in your face," she says. "There are the Pavlovian cues (if you will) of 'ugh, the bills, gotta pay those, overspent, not enough in the bank, bummer, bad mood.'"

There's also the matter of how individuals pay bills, typically. They stash them away in the corner until they have a substantial stack, then sit down and deal with a whole bunch of them once or twice a month. In doing so, they inevitably have to watch a whole pile of their money move out of their accounts and into the accounts of their creditors. It's no wonder bill-paying makes us so cranky. "But when you choose to go online and pay your bills," Birndorf notes, "you are making an active choice to do so. You receive and pay the bills when you want and that feels good. It's empowering to be in the driver's seat."

So what are the lessons to take from this research? If you're not online, as two-thirds of banking customers are, get online. If like half of those two-thirds, you're double dipping – getting paper statements in addition to your online version – it's time to cut the cord. That paper is likely weighing on your mood. And if you, like many people, haven't gone paperless with other bill providers (only half of student loans bills are received paperlessly – and many of those are double dipping, too; ditto 40% of cable bills, 32% of gas and electric, 24% of water) it's time to give it a try.

And if you're a company that has been trying to get your customers to go paperless, understand the reasons they're not doing it: they don't trust your website, think it's too complicated, and worry about not having access to archived bills and statements. Deal with those factors. Then don't appeal to their greener instincts; play the happiness card instead. And if that doesn't work? If the economics of your business dictates dropping the paper anyway, you can take heart in this: The NACHA research says 6 out of 10 of your customers wouldn't even mind.

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