By Keith Hayward, North East Mississippi Electric Power Association
Being a utility in a college town has a unique set of challenges. In addition to serving 24,500 customers across four counties, each August brings a frenzy of service starts for North East Mississippi Electric Power Association (NE MS EPA) as over 20,000 students return to Ole Miss in a single week. For the co-op, which serves most of the apartment complexes and rental properties of students at the University of Mississippi, the paperwork, customer service, and workforce management challenges were daunting. During move-in week, service starts can reach 1,200 a day.
Helping students through service starts (many of whom were setting up utilities for the first time in their lives), keeping track of which landlords did or did not want their units cut off when the students left, and expediting installs often caused delays and backlogs in service at the utility. It also created massive paperwork and required help from other departments.
Today, a year after automating its workforce management, North East MS EPA has seen a complete turnaround. With a staff of three in the office and two field service reps, they routinely manage the 15,000 service starts per year -including move-in week-even providing same-day service to calls coming in as late as 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
The transition has been dramatic, yet rooted in a gradual implementation of a variety of automated technologies.
Automating Across the Enterprise
North East MS EPA is no stranger to the benefits (and complexities) of automation, having deployed SCADA, OMS, GIS and MDM in recent years. By 2012, however, workforce management and organization of daily work remained dependent on paperwork and physical delivery of work orders and tasks. Constantly having to come back to the office to pick up more service orders to keep up with this rush caused a lot of interruptions and problems in the field. The co-op would print the service orders out, and the field service reps would come in, pick them up and go back to the field-sometimes to the same area where they had been previously working.
In 2014, the co-op committed to moving to an automated approach, deploying mobile workforce management software from SEDC, the supplier of their UPN customer service and billing software as well as several other technologies already implemented at the utility.
The mobile workforce system provided the capacity to work service orders and collection orders in real time, passing the orders electronically through customer service reps, dispatchers and field service representatives (FSR). The real-time aspect of the technology was a priority for North East MS EPA, since FSRs needed to eliminate inefficiencies, such as wasted time going to residents that no longer needed help.
In addition to the real-time integration with existing back-office software for billing and customer service, North East MS EPA was eager to adopt paperless workflows and real-time integrated automated vehicle location functionality, allowing them to know where every truck was at any time. The technology North East MS EPA selected also works with any GPS system and is compatible with Apple, Android and Windows tablets.
Making the Change
The training process took place over a day and a half in 2014, and then mobile workforce went live immediately. Customer service, dispatchers, supervisors, and field service workers learned the new software quickly. Manager of Engineering and Operations Randall Abel described the rollout: “They worked 750 service orders over the first few days and only had to send service reps to 23 orders in the field. Once we went live, the trainers stayed on site for an extra day just in case we had any questions-which we did, but we were able to work through with their help.”
Customizing the processes took some thought. For example, to move the service application process online, North East MS EPA took input from the workforce on how best to have it go into the system. Abel said, “We decided to have two people work in our office with the job of monitoring the online applications, running the credit checks, sending out the emails, getting applications from online when they are ready to go and then moving them over to mobile. They also handle all of the mobile communications.”
Organizing Daily Work
Order dispatching is either done first thing in the morning or the day before. The service reps know exactly what they need to do as soon as the order comes through on their mobile device. The days of driving into the office for orders are over. Today, orders are sent to service reps as soon as they are received from the customer.
|Service starts can reach 1,200 in a day for the North East Mississippi Electric Power Association as more than 20,000 Ole Miss students return to school. (Photo by Ole Miss Communications and courtesy of North East Mississippi Electric Power Association)|
The reduction in truck-rolls the utility realized during the initial rollout has continued. North East MS EPA manages most service orders on a laptop in the co-op’s office. Unless the meter needing a disconnect is under glass, the meter will not need to be physically disconnected since a new tenant will be moving in eventually. The utility will monitor the usage of the meter after the customer has moved out and make the economic decision as to whether or not they need to go in and cut off that meter. They can also see if a service order is coming down in the next week or so and from there make a sound decision as to which meters will require a truck to do a physical disconnect. Often, Abel noted, “When we get a disconnect for a location from a student, we already know that the landlord may want it kept in their name, and we can immediately turn around and create the connect request and work that out in the office without ever going into the field.”
Now, even during the rush of move-in/move-out each semester, the co-op can have three people in the office running the system with only two service reps in the field. Orders are now completed 80 percent faster than they used to be. Abel appreciates the increased efficiency. “The improvements to order management and tracking are impressive,” he said. “It’s easy to see what orders have been issued, are pending or have been completed.”
Electronic imaging of all documentation has allowed North East MS EPA to let everything go into the mobile system, making the entire system paperless. All applications and contracts are scanned and attached to the customer’s account. When service is needed in the field, the imaged documents are accessible through mobile workforce and the utility can pull up the customer’s account data all in one place.
Field service workers are also enjoying the convenience of recording their notes electronically. Before mobile workforce, FSRs would hand write their notes on the bottom of the paper service order as they worked the job. After bringing the mass of order sheets back to the office in the evening, a designated person would record the information into the system. This required additional staff resources and introduced the possibility of error, as these notes would sometimes be illegible or overlooked entirely. Now with mobile workforce, an FSR can enter the notes directly into the mobile system while on site and take care of it immediately.
When Semesters Change
The first schoolyear rush hit North East MS EPA in August 2014, immediately after implementation of the new system. Abel recalls the dramatic difference in the experience. “Within the first month, we had processed over 3,000 orders due to student rush.”
By back-to- school in August 2015, both field and office workers had a year of use with the system and weren’t looking back. The utility has maintained or improved service to all customers across more than 2,000 miles of service lines, doing more with less even during the yearly rush periods.
“Without question, mobile workforce management is the biggest bang for your buck of any electronic tool that has come out in recent years,” Abel said. “Our cooperative has deployed SCADA, OMS, GIS and MDM in recent years. This one was the easiest to implement and had a very big payback. Being able to provide our customers with same-day service up to four in the afternoon is a luxury our customers have really appreciated since we made the switch.”
Keith Hayward is Manager and CEO of North East Mississippi Electric Power Association in Oxford, Mississippi.