How advanced metering impacts a call center

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

They may be far removed from the meter shop, but call-center representatives will feel it when a utility deploys advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

Unlike mobile automatic meter reading, an AMI system operates over a fixed communications network, which means your utility could be in continuous contact with meters and bring in dozens of reads per day for each customer. Many utilities draw hourly data on residential accounts. The result: Call-center reps have more information than ever to work with, and it changes their jobs.

According to Scott Durham, vice president of strategic accounts for Elster, a technology solutions developer, “AMI reaches across almost all the operational silos of a utility.” It completely changes business processes, he says, adding, “The customer-service department should get involved with a deployment from the get-go.”

More detail, less volume
There is plenty of good news related to AMI for customer-service professionals. For one thing, call volume generally goes down with such systems, as the meter reads are more accurate and estimated bills virtually vanish.

When Austin Energy added 126,000 AMI endpoints five years ago, managers reported a 30 percent drop in the number of meter-related calls. That number is all the more remarkable when you consider that the utility didn’t deploy AMI to all of its then 355,000 electric meters.

Steve Fifrick, manager of revenue cycle services at Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), reports that meter-related calls dropped off at his utility, too. “There was a small increase in the number of calls when customers had questions during the installation,” he says. “Since then, the number of calls has gone way down.”

WPS reads some 750,000 endpoints with AMI. Before deploying the technology, the utility wound up estimating approximately 60,000 accounts per month. Now, the number of estimates is down to fewer than 500 per month. “That has a huge impact on the number of calls that come in,” Fifrick says.

Some calls at WPS now take longer to resolve because of the AMI data available, but the call center gets more “one-and-done” call resolution, he continues. High-bill complaints, for instance, may be settled by looking more closely at consumption data.

Not on a Roll
Utilities can also expect to have fewer service calls with AMI. At WPS, call-center reps can conduct virtual move-in or move-out readings on the spot, or schedule those reads to occur at some time of the customer’s choosing. There’s no need to send a reader out for those off-cycle reads.

Fifrick says his utility saves on “blue-sky” calls, too. Those are the ones that come in when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, but a customer still telephones to report he or she is in the dark. “Before, we had to roll a truck, because we had no way of knowing if the customer was out of service,” Fifrick says. “Now, the rep can ping the meter to see if there is service to the site. Then we can offer steps the customer can take before she calls an electrician.”

Remote disconnection switches are another way AMI cuts field calls. Although the technology is an add-on to most systems, Elster’s Durham points out that some states are now requiring these devices, which allow the utility to cut service with the push of a button. If utilities want rate recovery on “smart” meters in Texas, he notes, those meters “have to include an integrated remote-disconnection capability” starting January 1, 2008. The switches act as a revenue-assurance tool, he says. “Instead of letting a bill run $200 in arrears before they send someone out to cut service, the utility can act when the bill is only $50 overdue.” Before, he explains, utilities had to wait until the delinquent account reached a level justifying the cost of a service call.

Then, there are the load-shedding capabilities remote disconnection switches build into the system. As Durham points out, AMI “goes beyond the meter” by acting as a network gateway linking the utility to device shut-offs that control pool pumps, air conditioners and other non-essential load. This, too, allows the utility to shed load and meet peak demand without blackouts.

All of these AMI uses — hourly consumption data for complaint resolution, load shedding, virtual reads, and remote disconnection — require call-center staff to learn new policies and procedures. According to Durham, planning for such changes often is deficient. “People aren’t putting a lot of emphasis on the customer-service disruptions and changes that will happen,” he concludes.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.


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