The inaugural issue of Utility Information Pipeline pointed out several key pieces of information I think a good utility website should include. I still encounter utility websites that have incomplete information or are not as easy to navigate as they could be, so this issue highlights eight common mistakes to avoid.

This, of course, assumes your utility has a website. If you don’t, my first question is “why not…?” This is 2012 and a business without a website is like an individual without a cell phone – out of touch.

If the cost of developing a website is holding you back, consider checking with a local community college that offers a web design course. Inquire if the instructor would be interested in developing your website as a class project. If not, consider hiring one of the better students in the class to design your website.

Let’s take a look at some common mistakes to avoid…

  1. Make your office address difficult to find

Your office address should be prominently displayed on your home page. If it isn’t on the home page, there should be a clear link such as “Directions to our office” or “Find our office” to the page that does include your address.

If your office isn’t extremely easy to find from all directions, it might be helpful to include driving directions to your office. Or consider linking to a mapping site that will allow the user to enter their address to get turn-by-turn directions to your office.

  1. Fail to include your office hours

Are your office hours clearly posted on your website? This is especially important if your office closes for lunch or if your hours aren’t the same each day.

  1. Hinder your customers from contacting your staff

Does your website include a “contact us” page that includes phone numbers (with direct extensions) and e-mail addresses of your key staff? Why burden your customer service staff with having to transfer calls or provide e-mail address for your staff when your website can easily provide that information?

  1. Neglect to let your customers know how they can pay their bill

Do you accept credit cards? Can your customers pay online or call an automated phone payment line? Do you have an after hours drop box? Do local banks accept payments for you? Can your customers learn about these various payment options from your website?

  1. Keep your customers from accessing needed forms

Do you have certain forms that your customers must complete? For example, bank draft sign-up forms or your application for service? Are downloadable versions of these forms available on your website? If not, they should be.

  1. Hide your rates from your customers

Are your rates clearly posted on your website? Do your customers complain about your rates being high? I know… what customers don’t complain about what they perceive to be high rates?

If, in reality, your rates are comparable to, or lower than, the rates of neighboring utilities, why not post this on your website to inform your customers?

However, on the other hand, if your rates are indeed higher than other nearby utilities, have you thought about using your website to explain the reasons why your rates are what they are?

  1. Avoid explaining your policies

Can your customers turn to your website to learn what your policies are? For example, if you require new customers applying for service to provide photo identification or their lease agreement, is this clearly stated on your website? Are your late payment penalty and cut-off policies explained?

  1. Ignore commonly asked questions

Does your website include a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page with answers to the most commonly asked questions? For example, if your bills include additional charges besides the primary utilities you provide, are they explained on your website?

If you don’t know what to include on an FAQ page, have your customer service staff track the most commonly asked questions for a month. Once you have an idea what kinds of questions your customers are asking, you will know what to post on your FAQ page.

Ask an independent observer to review your website

If you haven’t taken a look at your website lately from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about your operation, I encourage you to do so. Better yet, invite someone whose opinion you value, but who is not affiliated with your utility, to take an objective look at your website.