Customer Information Systems–Whats Needed, Whats Available?

Customer Information Systems–What`s Needed, What`s Available?

By Greg Galluzzi, TMG Consulting Inc.

Within today`s rapidly changing environment, utilities are recognizing the necessity and importance of serving their customers. In this light, the utility`s number one resource has become the staff member who interacts directly with the customer. It is this staff member who must embrace the customer and provide exceptional levels of caring customer service. To obtain this service level, utilities must provide their staffs with the appropriate organizational structure, human resource environment and systems environment.

This new focus on the customer has resulted in the development of new initiatives, which are driving utilities to implement new customer information systems (CIS). These initiatives have a significant impact on how customer systems are viewed in comparison to the utility billing and customer-based systems of the past. The initiatives have influenced product design features resulting in today`s competitive-based CIS. These new competitive-based CIS models can possibly best be described by the individual components or features that are important in today`s environment.

In the following paragraphs an explanation of the needed features is presented, as well as an overview of what is actually available in today`s marketplace.

Customer

It makes sense that the customer would be the first component of a competitive-based CIS. This significant feature provides the capability to support a customer data entity. It encompasses establishing a customer and related information in the system one time and assigning a unique number to identify that customer.

Unlike systems of the past, a customer can be either an existing customer with a financial responsibility to the utility or a prospective customer. Once established, this feature utilizes marketing functions to promote products and services to both existing and potential customers.

To promote a customer focus it is imperative that the CIS provide the customer service representative with a consolidated view of the many relationships and accounts each customer has with the utility. This consolidated view also serves to promote a single point of customer contact with the ability to record, track and script customer interactions and conversations. In addition, the CIS must manage customer acquisition, registration and removal.

What`s available? The vast majority of products in today`s market accommodate a customer entity. However, some utilize it more than others do. Many offer a customer entity but are still very account based with little information retained at the customer level. Most products provide master account capabilities allowing sub-accounts to be linked to a master for billing purposes.

Products operating within England, Australia and New Zealand are designed to provide for the mechanics of deregulation as it relates to customer acquisition, registration and removal. A few U.S.-based products, especially those actively competing in the California market, are also prepared to accommodate customer choice.

Account

One of the most significant complaints regarding existing customer systems is the inability to access, manipulate and report on information contained in the system. As a result, a significant competitive-based feature is the ability to access CIS-based customer information.

From an external customer perspective, a competitive CIS provides access through the Internet, automated voice response (AVR) units and electronic data interchange (EDI) solutions. From an internal customer perspective, access is provided through Web-based reporting, a data mart or data warehouse, third party reporting tools and the ever popular download into the desktop environment. Account access has proven especially popular for large commercial and industrial customers as many utilities provide web-based access into the customers` detailed account information.

What`s available? Vendors are quickly moving to provide customers` with information via the Internet. Most product vendors have also developed AVR integration; however, it is typically not a standard interface and will cost extra to develop. The same is true with EDI, which has received a lot of publicity but not many implementations.

The most readily available access to account information is through data mart-based solutions in combination with third party reporting tools such as Crystal Reports and COGNOS. Also, standard among product offerings is the ability to download data into the desktop for subsequent manipulation and reporting.

Premise

Historically, the premise or service address has always been uniquely identified. Usually the service address is verified against valid street addresses within the utility`s service territory. A competitive-based CIS defines the premise as a delivery point, which may be located anywhere inside or outside the service territory. Rather than use a dictionary of valid street addresses, this CIS will utilize a software product to validate both the service address and the mailing address. With the fast approaching deregulated environment, the CIS must be able to associate generation, transmission, distribution, infrastructure and back office service providers to the premise or delivery point.

What`s available? Virtually all products currently available provide for a premise, however, very few have implemented the design needed to accommodate multiple suppliers. Vendors are developing this area in accordance with specific client needs.

Service Point

When residents receive a newspaper at their homes, the concrete at the end of the driveway becomes a service point. A resident with a water meter for the home and a different one for the pool can have either two water service points, each with its own meter, or a single water service point with two meters. A competitive-based CIS identifies metered and non-metered service points within the premise or delivery point. As with the premise, it is imperative for the service point to accommodate multiple suppliers. In addition, an often overlooked feature within a multiple service environment is support for work districts and read routes at the service point level rather than at the premise level. How many electric meter reading routes are the same as the solid waste pickup route?

What`s available? The service point is tricky. While some vendors have designed for a delivery point, service point and associated meter(s), others simply link meters directly to the premise. Products developed for a single service such as electric or gas tend to focus on the premise and maintain information at that level rather than on a specific service at the service point.

Many vendors are developing their products to accommodate multiple suppliers with a link to real-time usage and pricing. Others have been slow to react and are just beginning to develop product design and integration required to accommodate customer choice.

Work

Perhaps the most significant impact to service work is the need to accommodate not only meter-based work but also equipment- and product-based orders. The competitive-based CIS is capable of tracking meters and equipment and retail products within inventory. It is also capable of tracking the necessary service and delivery work.

Customers cannot afford to take off work for an entire day waiting for a service person. The CIS must allow the customer service representative to provide the customer with a window for service work. This function is typically accommodated thorough integration with a work management system and a field service management/mobile dispatching system.

What`s available? Most CIS products provide service order subsystems with the flexibility to tailor a service order to a specific activity and related product or service. A few vendors have replaced their product`s CIS service order subsystems with fully integrated work management systems.

The CIS product of today does not offer standard integration with a field service management/mobile dispatching system. This precludes offering customers a time slot for service work to be performed, or the real-time service work status update and estimated arrival time. The mobile computing needs of the utility are being addressed through integration work with field service and mobile computing vendors.

Credit

A competitive-based CIS is capable of maintaining extensive profile information regarding the customer and the customer`s related entities. Automated interfaces with credit bureaus assist in determining customers` credit worthiness and the deposit amount required.

Once established in the system, the credit system provides a sophisticated credit-scoring engine with the ability to view a customer`s overall credit rating and outstanding balance across the customer`s numerous accounts. The credit score feeds a flexible collection notification and cutoff process, which is easily tailored to a customer profile, with a comprehensive payment arrangement process.

What`s available? Many products currently available provide extensive credit and collection features. In addition, a few standard credit bureau and collection agency interfaces exist.

Portfolio

Everything a utility is capable of providing to its customers is available in its products and services offerings portfolio. The competitive-based CIS should present the staff member with a view of what is available at the delivery point and what is active or currently being delivered to the customer.

The CIS should accommodate implied contracts as well as special negotiated contracts, resulting in service agreements between the utility and the customer.

What`s available? Most of today`s products do a poor job of providing staff members with a consolidated view of available and active products and services. They typically present services in one spot, products in another and program offerings sprinkled throughout the system. In addition, most CIS products are not contract management systems. They do a good job of accommodating implied contracts but a poor job of accommodating special negotiated contracts.

Inventory

Historically, inventory systems focused on meters, and in some instances, transformers and a few other infrastructure items. Today, the competitive-based CIS must accommodate profiles for non-metered equipment and retail products within inventory. In addition, the work subsystem must provide for delivery, installation, return and warranty work associated with equipment and retail products.

What`s available? Most products provide a sound meter management subsystem. However, they do a poor job of accommodating non-metered items and fail miserably in regard to retail products.

Rates

Obviously a competitive-based CIS must provide for rate structure flexibility. It must be able to accommodate unbundled components and real-time pricing. With customers located anywhere within the competitive marketplace, it must also accommodate multiple jurisdictions and taxing authorities.

It is imperative that utilities offer optimum and cost effective rates. This requires the CIS to include rate modeling and analysis tools.

What`s available? Currently there are a few products that provide unbundled components within the rate structure. Others require a separate rate to reflect unique combinations of unbundled components. Most products have overcome their inability to accommodate multiple jurisdictions and taxing authorities. However, products vary widely when it comes to rate modeling and analysis tools.

Billing

Flexible billing is one of the most important requirements for a successful utility in the competitive environment. A competitive-based CIS must allow multiple accounts to be consolidated into a single bill. It must also be capable of combining multiple products and services into a single customer bill. In addition, a competitive-based CIS will present the customer with an electronic bill for viewing and payment over the Internet, through EDI or other electronic media.

Consolidated billing is extremely important since many utilities are positioning themselves to function as CIS service bureaus for other utilities. In addition, some plan to offer other providers a service that adds their (the other providers`) billing information onto the utility bill.

What`s available? All of today`s products allow for the consolidation of multiple accounts into a single bill, and for the consolidation of account charges into a single bill. Many are just now moving toward Internet bill presentation and payment. Many vendors are also offering service bureau capabilities through their contract and licensing agreements.

Financial

What happens if the utility`s customer makes a partial payment on a bill with multiple products and services and potentially represents the interests of multiple companies? A competitive-based CIS must provide for allocations across these multiple products, services and companies.

It should provide customers with numerous bill paying methods–from the typical over-the-counter payment and bank drafting, to credit cards and debit cards, Internet, smart cards, EDI, and AVR-based payments.

Bundled services and products allow utilities to offer discounts for those customers receiving multiple products and services or for those who submit early payments.

What`s available? Currently available vendor products offer a flexible allocation process. Standard interfaces are available to cashier workstations and to accommodate ACH bank drafting. Advanced payment methods are usually developed on a customer by customer basis with the vendor attempting to develop standardized offerings.

Usage

The single biggest drawback to providing customer choice, telephone billing and cable billing is the inability for the CIS to capture usage from a single measurement system. From a cable perspective, it is the set-top box and associated real-time usage and pricing sources; from a telephone perspective, it is the real-time telephone usage and pricing sources; and from the customer choice perspective, it is the real-time meter consumption devices and pricing sources.

What`s available? Most products today do not accommodate customer choice and, other than flat rate charges, none of them accommodate telephone or cable billing. A lot of pilot projects are currently under way, working out measuring usage from various meters, telephone and cable capture systems. There are a few bright spots among vendors positioned to serve the California market.

Summary

Regardless of the utility`s perspective, it is clear that all aspects of a CIS are impacted by the various customer-based initiatives. Unfortunately, a CIS that accommodates all of these competitive functions is not yet available. However, as utilities move into the competitive business environment, utilities and vendors alike are realizing just how important it is to develop systems that will accommodate a plethora of customer needs and wants.

Author Bio

Greg Galluzzi is TMG Consulting Inc.`s president. He has 18 years of utility consulting experience. Galluzzi`s Austin, Texas-based firm assists public and investor-owned utilities in the selection and implementation of customer system solutions. He may be contacted at TMGGreg@worldnet.att.net. Additional CIS information can be found at: http://www.cisworld.com.

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