The Skillz to Design the Billz

Bills, Bills, BillsThere was a stack of bills waiting for me on my desk at Behavior when I returned to work on Monday. It’s pretty amazing how quickly bills will accumulate even for a small business, and I wrote literally eighteen checks before the day was out. Paying vendors and utilities has been my responsibility since last fall, when we rented our office space and the monthly expenses started really racking up. In my dealings with countless of these statements, I’ve been keeping mental notes on the usability of invoices, what makes them easy to understand and easy to pay. Following is a sketch of an ‘ideal’ paper-based invoice.

Size Matters

The first, most important factor is size. Bills should be formatted for the US Letter standard — there’s no excuse to use any other size for transactions within the 50 states. This makes handling and filing the paperwork much, much easier. Beyond that, everything is a matter of thinking through how bills are handled.

  1. Statement layouts should assume that the customers will staple their bills together. This can be done with a slightly wider left margin, which would ensure every page remains unobscured by the staple.
  2. Crucial reference information — like the invoice number, the date of the invoice, the customer’s account number and the due date — should always appear prominently at the top of the page. The due date, along with one or two other bits of crucial information like the total amount due, should also appear in red.
  3. Multi-page invoices should feature the page numbers in large, clear letters along with a total page count, e.g. “Page 1 of 3.”
  4. The pay stub of every invoice should be machine-perforated. You’d be surprised by how many companies just print a dashed-line where a real perforation should be. And this perforation and stub must appear at the bottom of the first page as well, so that customers, having stapled the pages in the natural position at the top left can remove the stubs without having to re-staple. Again, you’d be surprised how many companies perforate their stubs at the top of the page (I’m looking your way, Verizon and Oxford Health Plans!).
  5. Information should be laid out clearly on the pay stub, naturally, but special attention should be paid to the customer’s address and the pay-to address, which makes possible my next point…
  6. These addresses need to be placed in such a manner that they will show through a standard window envelope (which should be included with the bill). This makes sending the payment much easier for the customer, who often has to manually write their own return address, and it virtually ensures that the payment will not get lost in the mail due to poor addressing.
  7. Finally, because the pay stub is one-third of a letter-size page, that window envelope can be a standard No. 10 envelope, which will also accomodate a standard-sized commercial check. It drives me crazy when businesses that obviously know that I am a corporate client — like my credit card, which says “Corporate” across the face of it — include a small return envelope with their statements. This forces me to fold up the check, which probably makes it harder for the company to handle it anyway — nobody wins.

This model won’t work for every business that must send invoices to their customers, but for the vast majority of bills that Behavior pays, I think it’s a workable approach. I’m talking about statements we receive for our phone bills, our internet access, our electronic security service, our water delivery, our health coverage, our corporate credit cards, etc. And of course, this is not necessarily the ideal invoice — in the future we’ll be paying all of these bills electronically, based on (hopefully) some clearly-understood standard for transmission of data. Or maybe there’ll be no bills in the future, because everything will be free!


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