Making the Transition
PECO Energy`s Step-by-step Approach from Legacy Storage to Web-based Billing
By Charles Gunn
Early last year as PECO Energy executives weighed becoming one of the nation`s first utilities to test electronic bill delivery and payment (EBDP), the potential benefits were clear. EBDP promised to:
Reduce mailing costs–saving nearly $1-million annually if only 10 percent of the company`s 1.5 million customers signed up to pay bills on-line;
Lower handling costs–only 3.5 cents per transaction compared with 15 cents for payment by mail and 55 cents for in-person bill paying;
Improve cash flow resulting from a greater number of on-time payments and elimination of common consumer errors when transcribing information for traditional remittance methods;
Reduce mail and processing float time; and, perhaps most important,
Provide an opportunity to build a brand with consumers by interacting directly with them and creating more focused marketing messages.
Yet, if the benefits were clear, the path to achieving them was not. Like virtually all utilities, PECO Energy`s customer records resided in a legacy computer system whose basic programs had been written 25 to 30 years earlier. Over the years, so many different programmers had worked with the system that no one person truly understood it. The one basic fact of life was that the system worked and PECO Energy could not afford to let it fail–even to make the transition to something as promising as EBDP.
At the recommendation of TransPoint (then known as MSFDC), PECO Energy`s vendor of choice to help launch EBDP, PECO Energy called in Interface Systems Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., to provide the systems integration. Interface`s special expertise lies in making legacy data streams easily accessible to Web-based users. Although PECO Energy decided to make that data more accessible by putting it in flat files–rather than the Advanced Function Printing data streams made standard by IBM–the task facing Interface was both complex and time-consuming.
Interface`s first step was to help PECO Energy identify the data elements in the utility`s old billing system that would be included in the new electronic version, so that the existing bill format would be accessible and viewable on the Internet. To ease the transition, TransPoint provides a representative model of a utility company bill. Yet utility bills come in as many formats as there are utilities and any one model can`t cover all of the possibilities.
The data within PECO Energy`s legacy files, for example, was not tagged for easy identification. This complicated search and extraction procedures. PECO Energy`s bill format also included a tremendous amount of data–up to 800 pieces in a single bill–to include in the Internet template. Summaries of past and current charges and payments, details on how the utility arrived at each figure, and important regulatory information were just a few of the assets of the paper bill that PECO Energy needed to transfer to the Internet version.
Further complicating matters was the fact that PECO Energy supports both gas and electric power, so bills entering the system could be either one or two pages long, specify gas use, electric use or both, and entail multiple rates and rate structures as well as multiple meter readings.
PECO Energy`s EBDP system also had to be prepared to handle the many changes customer choice programs would soon be bringing. Though many different power suppliers are entering the industry, PECO Energy will remain the biller for most customers. However, with each new provider, each new rate, and each new rate structure, the layout of the bill will change again. In addition, PECO Energy will be forced to rely on outside companies to provide timely and accurate information in order to keep their EBDP program up-to-date.
Once collected, the immense amount of data has to be merged with a web template. Interface designed a Web page that is flexible enough to handle both the gas/electric and the multiple provider variables. Though initially complicated, the Internet bill template is ultimately much quicker and easier to change than its paper predecessor. In fact, just within the pilot phase of PECO Energy`s EBDP program, the template experienced three or four such changes, and each was accomplished by Interface in only a day or two.
Designing the Bill
Interface and designers from PECO Energy`s marketing department worked together to take full advantage of the Web`s graphic potential. They gave PECO Energy`s electronic bills a more creative look, adding colors and styles that the company feels will be most attractive to users. Customers can also “interact” with their Web bills thanks to special functions that have been added to the template, such as hotlinks to PECO Energy`s website, community information and safety sites, in addition to a Frequently Asked Questions bulletin board.
With the ability to receive immediate answers to questions via the Internet, PECO Energy managers believe fewer customers will find it necessary to call PECO Energy for assistance, reducing call center volume and enabling the utility company to save money in yet another area of its operation. Interface is also working with PECO Energy to collect data from customers` electronic bills so that particular marketing efforts can be directed towards customers who, according to their billing history, are most apt to be responsive to them.
Interface is currently developing even more functions for PECO Energy`s EBDP system, all of which should be fully operational by the time the project`s pilot phase is complete and the Internet system is made available to all PECO Energy customers sometime this Spring. PECO Energy will be linked with Mellon Bank, the area`s largest financial institution, to enable the payment aspect of the EBDP program. A customer registration system, which will allow the company`s staff to review and either accept or reject customers who are interested in taking advantage of the EBDP system, is also being created.
PECO Energy`s EBDP pilot program began at the end of August 1998, and included 100 PECO Energy employees. Feedback has been positive, with users commenting that the Internet system is not only easier to use and more convenient than paper billing, but saves them time and money as well. In fact, the only complaint involved a relatively minor issue over the user`s choice of a password to access his or her account. Microsoft had limited the type of characters users could employ when creating their passwords, and consequently many people were unable to use names or dates that had personal significance and could be easily remembered. This glitch is scheduled to be resolved before PECO Energy`s program becomes available to the public.
Charles Gunn is a PECO Energy accounts receivable department analyst. His responsibilities have included the budget and business processes with respect to producing and mailing 1.5 million customer bills each month.
Editor`s Note: This article is the second in a two part series on consolidated electronic billing. Part one, “Save Money, Satisfy Customers with Internet Bill Delivery and Payment,” which can be found on page 40 of the March issue, provides a more general overview of electronic bill delivery and payment.