The New York Times had a great article the other day on consumer reluctance to pay bills online. The story cited a woman who did all of her shopping online, but steadfastly refused to pay her bills the same way. This really struck a chord with me because I am the same way. I purchase virtually everything online that I can, but my family continues to like the solidity of writing checks for personal payments.
Why is this?
I can think of several possibilities.
My initial thought was that a paper trail has real value. If a payment isn't received or an amount is disputed, I am not forced to rely solely on the good intentions of the payee to rectify the problem. The paper trail gives me real, tangible proof that the money was transferred.
However, the more I think about it, the less I'm convinced. After all, I use my credit card online all the time without creating a paper trail. I'm transferring money and counting on the fact that Amazon will correctly (and honestly) charge the right amount to my credit card.
Maybe it's because I know that, when it comes to buying things online, the credit card company gives me a channel to address and deal with disputes. I suspect online bill pay offers the same thing, but the tangible nature of my monthly credit card statement and the decades-old Visa, Mastercard and Amex brands give me confidence that my grievances will be addressed.
Here's one more idea: maybe consumer concern stems from the fact that bill paying is one of the few instances online when someone reaches out to the consumer to instigate a transaction--every other kind of transaction is instigated by the consumer. For example, on Amazon, the consumer instigates the purchase. However, when the billing alert comes to you, it feels somehow less tangible. It seems like an opportunity for something to go wrong. And, of course, that's exactly what happens with phishing.
The problem in the online world is that email is the only mechanism that lets businesses reach out to consumers. For bill payments, this is far too easily abused and thwarted. Maybe the ultimate solution to online bill payments will come from some future generation of email that is more reliable and trustworthy than what is available today. Anyone have any ideas?