Year in Review: Bill Payments in 2020

With leading bill payment aggregator Pay@ Services offering a broad spectrum of retailer, banking, and mobile-based bill payment services to bill issuers across most industry sectors, CEO Andrew Hardie believes that the company has the unique ability to provide a helicopter view of the bill payments market in 2020, particularly the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

For starters, he notes that there has been tremendous growth in bill payments this year from a year-on-year perspective, something which might seem unexpected given this year’s challenges. “With bill issuers needing to manage their cash flow, this resulted in a massive drive around bill payments and collections. Bill aggregators with efficient processing systems, effective front-end solutions, and a wide range of collections channels have been well positioned at this time to enable organisations to focus on their core businesses whilst saving on overheads and processing costs. At the same time, by outsourcing the bill processing side of their businesses, this has improved collection efficiencies.

“Additionally, despite some payment networks closing during the harder lockdown period, we were able to redirect customers to those channels that were open to ensure that bills could continue being paid.”

Lockdown has also had different repercussions for bill payments across different industries. For instance, payments for satellite TV, insurance and municipal services remained steady, while payments for the likes of travel, traffic fines and loans, for example, experienced quite significant declines over the hard lockdown period. However, since then, Pay@ has seen transaction volumes revert to pre-lockdown or better levels for all industry categories, except for the travel industry for obvious reasons. In fact, some industries have experienced incredible growth, such as remittance payments, which have grown exponentially. “One of the factors behind this was the closure of the informal transport system. What tends to happen is that taxi drivers take the money and give it to the payer’s family members in another part of South Africa or in another country. With this avenue closed during lockdown, the use of formal channels picked up significantly.”

In line with the digital wave that swept the world, there was a notable uptick in digital payments. “Even before lockdown, we were offering South African consumers a variety of digital payment as well as digital bill presentment methods. It has become increasingly necessary for bill issuers to deliver bills in a channel that is appropriate for their clientele. In this regard, we are seeing more and more value from our proprietary or third-party presentment solutions, which range from USSD, WhatsApp, and QR codes, to email, SMS, in-app, and web solutions. With most bill payers working remotely, certain industries, like insurers and satellite TV, utilised these to engage their clients and drive payments.”

Although the rise of digital bill payments was expected, payments (particularly cash payments) via retailers remain the dominant alternative payments channel for bills. The increase in retail payments that emerged during lockdown might have been a surprising trend to some. “From the very first day of lockdown, we saw growth in in-person payments at retailers and with the easing of lockdown regulations, this trend has shown no signs of slowing down. As much as there’s innovation around digitisation and the like, the one fundamental thing that we’ve noticed is that it will take a while for people to be educated around making the shift to digital channels and for them to be able to trust these. During the harder lockdown, people were still going to retailers to pay their bills; they still wanted the slip in their hands, to look the cashier in the eyes and to see the transaction going through.”

Looking to 2021, Hardie believes that retailer-based alternative bill payments will continue to dominate. However, he is also confident that digital innovations in the bill presentment and payment space will continue to emerge, providing bill issuers with more ways to reach their clients and increase the convenience and efficiency of the front-end payment process. At the same time, with many businesses still dealing with the aftermath of the initial lockdown period, he anticipates that the value of bill aggregators to manage core payment functions will become increasingly important for driving the efficient and cost-effective processing of payments.

“If anything, 2020 served as a reminder of the importance of going the extra mile in servicing clients effectively during difficult times and assisting them with bill payments through a multi-faceted collections offering,” concludes Hardie.