By Steven Kim
Uncertainty in the utility market has prompted many executives to sharpen their focus on key business decisions, such as driving down costs and enhancing customer care quality. To have flexibility in business strategies and encourage company growth, executives must consider several factors when purchasing a customer information system (CIS). The three critical “to do” areas are: leveraging automation as much as feasible, having a system that can support today’s—and tomorrow’s—needs, and ensuring cost-effectiveness.
One of the most important considerations when purchasing a new CIS is automation. Automation will mitigate manually intensive tasks that typically drive up labor costs associated with legacy systems, such as letter generation, collection activities and customer service. It will empower executives to improve workflow, increase performance monitoring and enhance customer care by offering online services.
Whether it is welcome letters or late notices, having a system that automatically processes this plethora of communication enables workers to increase their focus on the company’s core mission, without getting sidetracked by time-consuming tasks.
In addition, this facilitates business process automation by tying together similar tasks and automatically prioritizing them. For example, if a customer has requested to terminate service on a certain date, and then another customer has asked to turn on service at the exact same location on a different date, the system—boasting a flexible set of logic—would automatically link these two requests together and determine the priority and relevance of tasks.
Leveraging automation will also improve workflow by replicating changes on a mass level. For example, when a customer who has 15 accounts makes a change in his address, an automated system will make a mass change to all the accounts. This holds true for cancellations or other changes, so that a company can avoid having to input new data to each individual account.
Besides driving down costs, automation can increase customer care quality by enabling online self-service options. This allows customers to make requests for new services, input trouble calls, and update their accounts online—all without a physical interaction with the utility.
Finally, automation is critical to enhancing business intelligence. With legacy systems, it is very difficult to have real-time business reports to track key performance indicators. With a next-generation CIS system, however, getting a handle on big-picture numbers offers executives an immediate view of the health of the company. Specifically, executives can identify revenue, receivables, service orders processed, calls handled, etc. This essentially enables a real-time check-up on the performance of the business, as well as the opportunity to quickly correct errors when they arise.
Support Today and Tomorrow
Another key business factor to consider when purchasing a CIS is to ensure that the system can support your needs today, but also prepare for your needs tomorrow. It is imperative for utilities to have competitive agility. This means being able to offer flexible rates, quickly provide additional value-added products and services, and rapidly enter new markets as desired. For example, businesses looking to expand into another state—where the rules guiding the utility industry are different—need flexible systems to understand how to support both business needs simultaneously.
This can be accomplished by object-oriented design, or components, which allows a system to rapidly enhance or extend its functionality. Legacy systems often require arduous code changes to take on new functions, but with an object-oriented system, businesses can make one change without revamping the entire system.
Above all, a CIS must be cost-effective. Boasting a system that can operate on a day-to-day basis with a low overhead can be accomplished by securing a scalable system that deploys quickly, easily integrates with other systems, navigates efficiently, requires low training costs, tailors user interfaces, and enables platform independence in the technical environment. In addition, a CIS with platform and database independence reduces risk associated with system failure and increases flexibility to operate in different technical environments.
Utilities may require a zero-client, completely browser-based system to rapidly deploy a CIS and eliminate the need to put software on individual desktops. In addition, purchasing a CIS with many automated processes minimizes training time, thereby facilitating a quick deployment.
It’s also important to have a CIS that can easily integrate with other systems. Hard-coded programs and proprietary interfaces should be avoided, as they can cause deployment delays and operational overhead. Instead, open standard interfaces such as XML, web services, and open technology platforms such as J2EE will all enhance a system’s extensibility options. With this technology, system availability is enhanced and utilities are able to achieve greater scalability. This technology also provides excellent reliability and recovery through clustering, so if one piece of hardware malfunctions, this single event will not affect the application’s availability.
A cost-effective CIS also means having a system that navigates efficiently and doesn’t require unnecessary screens to accomplish one task. This is accomplished with portals and portlets—a cost-effective technology that allows users to personalize the system presentation, based on job functions or preferences. This increases efficiency by reducing the navigation between screens required to accomplish specific tasks.
Overall, securing a flexible, scalable system that minimizes labor costs through automation is key when purchasing a new CIS. A cost-effective system with critical technology capabilities will enable executives to harness existing resources to generate revenues and maintain competitive agility in this ever-changing marketplace.
Steven Kim has more than 17 years of technology experience with companies including Daleen Technologies, Alcatel Networks, Fujitsu and the Walt Disney Company. As chief technology officer of ORCOM, Mr. Kim is responsible for the company’s research and development of next generation CIS solutions.