How to Choose the Best Data Service Provider

By Ross McLaughlin

One of the utility industry’s leading revenue barriers is incomplete and poor quality customer data. It’s also one of the most preventable. Inaccurate customer data leads to high call center costs for inbound and outbound notification, inadequate billing and collections resolution, inability to effectively handle returned mail, and poor customer service. When utility companies don’t address the issue, they reduce cash flow and leave unrealized profits on the table.

According to the U.S. Census, 43.5 million Americans changed residences in 2000 and established new utility accounts. With so many Americans moving annually, the task of maintaining accurate, active information for clients can be laborious and expensive. That’s especially true considering that as many as 80 percent of those movers create new utility accounts before they obtain a telephone number.

It’s no coincidence that the very mobile segment of the U.S. population–a sizable chunk of the 43.5 million annual movers–is also the most likely demographic to commit fraud. People are free to uproot, transplant and leave a trail of outstanding utility charges that seldom lead to the client, let alone the payment due. In fact, the only things the trail leads to are costly, labor-intensive measures taken to recover the money owed. Even then, there are very few surefire ways of tracking down debtors.

A first-rate data service provider can go a long way toward solving some of these problems. Accurate data can boost billing and collections resolution, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Accurate data greatly enhances contact center efficiency, while improving the ability of automated systems to effectively handle inbound and outbound notification for critical issues such as outage handling. Similarly, contact center operators can offer enhanced customer service through better caller recognition and faster access to customer account information. A quality data service provider also helps reduce costs associated with tracking clients. For example, conventional voice-based directory assistance is a common alternative contact service. But at rates of $1 per call, it averages 80 percent more than a data service provider.

A dependable data service provider can be a vital resource for the utility industry, but how does one determine what makes one provider better than another? With a number of data providers to choose from, there are several key questions–some not so obvious–that should be carefully considered. Here are five of the most important considerations.

1. What’s important to know about data quality?

A primary consideration is the integrity of the data provided. That is, what is the source of that data? Most providers are committed to distributing only the highest quality information and, as a result, will address upfront the source of their information. Providers who work directly with telephone companies offer the most reliable source for maintaining accurate telephone and mailing contacts. Be wary of providers that mix accurate and potentially inaccurate source information.

2. How comprehensive is the data?

How completely does the data service provider represent the U.S. population? Of the estimated 110 million households nationwide, how many active records can they offer? A good data service provider should provide geographic coverage in excess of 99.5 percent of available telephone listings. Do they offer contact information for residential, commercial and government listings? Do they offer standard listing information in addition to non-listed and non-published listing information?

3. What is the update frequency?

The key to an accurate database is frequency of updates. With 800,000 changes in contact information occurring nationwide every day, it is vital to the efficiency of contact centers that providers update their databases daily. Consider that, on average, customer contact databases are only about 50 percent accurate and that utility call center systems recognize less than 40 percent of incoming callers. This deficiency is directly linked to the sheer volume of customers relocating. A provider whose database is updated daily can significantly counter database inaccuracies and low caller recognition.

4. How does the service maintain the quality and findability of its data?

This is the most technical aspect of identifying a trustworthy data service provider. Most providers ensure their data is not only accurate and up-to-date, but also “clean.” Noteworthy innovations are the use of advanced cleansing algorithms, which prevent the existence of duplicate records, as well as the use of address enhancement methods to standardize listing address elements. There are other considerations for findability. A quality data service provider should have search algorithms to effectively “match” your customer data with accurate contact information, or show a match score or confidence level in the results of a search. Other innovative features should allow you to intelligently search similar names and “smart” algorithms to find the information, even if certain elements were entered incorrectly.

5. How does the data service fit into your business process and systems?

A good data service provider should be able to provide multiple access points that use the latest in technology to integrate seamlessly into existing systems. Examples include a web interface for manual searching, an integrated service to allow real-time direct system-to-system interface, and a batch service to process your data for customer database cleaning. Service providers should also be flexible to develop specific solutions to meet unique system needs.

Finding a reliable data service provider is just as crucial to the success of your business as any other traditional component. It can boost call center efficiency, reduce operator time and associated costs, improve collections, and increase company revenues. But not every provider offers the same quality service. Put several data service providers to the test. A good data service provider should be able to prove the value and superiority of its service with a sample evaluation. It takes some initial effort, but accurate customer data quickly pays off in increased revenue and lower costs.

Ross McLaughlin is vice president and utility market manager for Portland Ore.-based Qsent Inc. Qsent has developed iQ411 Contact for utilities to improve notifications and contact center efficiencies, enhance customer service, increase billing and collections resolution, and reduce directory assistance costs. For more information visit

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