For more than 180 years, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), has supplied power to residents and businesses in central Maryland. BGE is the nation’s first gas utility and one of the earliest electric utilities. The company serves more than 1 million business and residential electric customers and 600,000 gas customers.
Amidst the changing face of its industry, from increased deregulation and competition, coupled with expanded customer programs and options, BGE is striving to maintain its position as the premier utility service provider in its community. Central to this strategy is an emphasis on customer service. Although the company has always excelled in this area, its recent restructuring makes this aspect of its business more crucial than ever.
BGE, as part of the Constellation Energy Group, now will focus exclusively on delivering power to customers, while Constellation will focus on generating and selling power. This new corporate mandate led BGE to take a critical look at its entire customer service operations and reinforce these vital processes to ensure continued success.
“From a business perspective, our challenge was to significantly enhance our customer operations, yet build on the considerable investment we made in our existing customer information system,” said Alan Stambaugh, IT consultant for BGE.”Our first step in this process was to take a hard look at our business processes and determine where we could improve their efficiency.”
Based on outdated technical underpinnings, BGE’s existing customer information system (CIS) had become a bottleneck to efficient customer service. Training time for new call center recruits took 29 weeks because the system was difficult to learn and time-consuming to use. Customer inquiries became more complex, and the time it took to access pertinent information to get answers increased. BGE needed a solution that could cut training time, decrease actual call time and improve overall processes.
BGE built their CIS in 1989. It was developed with Arthur Andersen and was the first Customer/1 (C1) prototype. C1 handles all of BGE’s billing, file maintenance and online access. It runs on an IBM System 390 mainframe and accesses the company’s central data warehouse stored on an IBM DB2 database that serves as the company’s primary customer information data warehouse.
Since 1989, BGE has made a significant investment in the development and maintenance of its CIS. The company estimates it has spent $100 million total on updates and modifications to meet the continually changing requirements of the utilities industry.
“For us, CIS is very successful software that has served us well from its original deployment until now,” Stambaugh said. “The problem is that it is based on outdated technology that assumes each piece of information exists in isolation. This architecture now hinders our ability to access multiple pieces of customer information quickly and easily.”
To obtain a complete picture of what was needed to answer customer inquiries as efficiently as possible, BGE conducted joint application development sessions that included call center team members, supervisors and trainers. They walked through the customer service processes needed to support every possible call scenario and observed the steps reps took to answer each call.
BGE found that 75 percent of the time, call center reps had to access nine to 12 screens of information to get all the data needed to answer one customer’s inquiry. Not only that, but each screen was accessed sequentially-that is, it would be called up, the rep would copy some notes, close that screen and open another, copy down another piece of information, close that screen, etc. BGE realized they needed a more efficient method to access mainframe information.
BGE responded by developing GUIdance, a new application that would serve as an intuitive, easy-to-use interface between their legacy CIS and their customer representatives. GUIdance was built to provide the information call center reps need as efficiently and easily as possible, so they can respond to customers’ requests and inquiries more quickly.
“GUIdance goes beyond the call center and embodies the holistic approach of the corporation in meeting customers needs and expectations. It’s a strategically essential part of our business moving forward,” Stambaugh said.
MitemView Powers the GUIdance Solution
To make GUIdance a reality, BGE needed a product that could leverage the investment made in their CIS, i.e., reuse the business rules they already had on mainframe, provide high data acquisition rates, be able to support new applications and get up and running quickly. MitemView, an application integration tool from MITEM Corp., was the only product that met BGE’s requirements.
Once BGE understood the pieces of information service reps required to complete a process, they built Visual Basic PC screens that use MitemView to make the necessary calls to the mainframe. MitemView accesses the mainframe information and sends it to the Visual Basic programs. MitemView’s non-invasive approach means that it easily communicates with the existing CIS, without requiring programmers to write extraneous translation code.
The Visual Basic programs then create PC screens that give call center reps the pertinent information they need in a familiar, Windows-like environment. MitemView’s fast, asynchronous data transfer enables reps to perform multiple tasks at once and view and access multiple screens of information simultaneously, something they could not do before. MitemView enabled BGE to take a lot of work out of the development process.
MitemView has productivity tools that automate routine processes and reproduce best practice development techniques. As a result, GUIdance was developed in only 14 months.
In the pilot program for GUIdance, BGE has been able to achieve significant business efficiencies. When fully deployed, the company anticipates they will save more than $1 million in customer service operations each year.
GUIdance has cut training time from 29 weeks to less than 10 weeks. This is significant because of the high turnover of call center reps. The company was investing time and money training new employees who might leave after 20 weeks of training. BGE now has a system that is very intuitive to learn. Once the new recruits learn a little about the business, GUIdance literally walks them through the call center processes step by step. The system uses Microsoft standards, so anyone familiar with that environment can easily use GUIdance. As a result, BGE can get people into service sooner, and they can be productive sooner. BGE also has cut an average of seven seconds off each customer call. With the 3 to 4 million customer calls they receive each year, the savings amount to thousands of hours annually spent handling customer inquiries.
GUIdance also has enabled BGE to tighten up its processes. For example, if a trouble call comes in regarding down wires, the rep clicks on that item and up pops a menu that drills down through a series of questions they need to ask to get the right information to the field. This saves considerable time because the field rep no longer has to call and ask clarifying questions. They can respond to the trouble call more quickly because they have a better understanding of the problem.
BGE began using GUIdance in November 2000 and rolled out the application in three phases.
The deployment phases coincided with call center rep training programs. In the first phase, GUIdance was used for all basic customer calls that pertained to power trouble, general information or collections. Phase two added inquiries regarding billing issues and included the 25 different billing processes BGE handles. Phase three included questions about service orders, such as customers who needed to change something about their account, which is a very complicated group of problems.
GUIdance is currently used at BGE’s training and usability labs and has enjoyed an enthusiastic response. BGE is considering future expansion of the program to provide Web access so customers can view the details of their account online. That is just one area in which BGE anticipates their use of GUIdance will grow.
“GUIdance is an application everyone at BGE is excited about,” Stambaugh said. “They see a new face on the screen and they like what they see and how easy it is to use. They know it will make it easier to do their jobs, and deliver the high customer service standard we’ve set.
“With other technologies such as messaging, you have to do a lot of the interface work yourself,” he continued. “The process MitemView has in place for mapping out fields and validating and checking information on the screens to determine what you have, makes the development process much shorter.”