SFA: A fictional necessity to retain consumers

Kathleen Davis
Associate Editor

Utilities have two reactions to sales force automation (SFA): confusion and fear. They know electricity, not sales. They’re Benjamin Franklins, not P.T. Barnums. And SFA is overwhelming at first glance: an ambiguous, fire-breathing dragon of a term that umbrellas a number of different software packages and systems and conjures up the vague imagine of Star Wars’ C-3PO hocking cars in Jersey. The plain truth is that SFA doesn’t actually exist. It’s fictional (there’s not one system that will pop out of the closet wearing a blazing red emblem of SFA and claiming to be the one and only), but the theories behind it are not.

According to Jim Dickie, managing partner for Insight Technology Group, utilities need to realize the consumer-end financial impact that deregulation could have and act accordingly. Advanced computer systems are the easiest way to accomplish this: SFA in a nutshell. It’s really all about marketing, and SFA systems are the fastest, most convenient way of tracing the dollar from consumer to utility instead of the old system of moving that dollar from the utility out and not really caring if it fell off the face of the earth.

Utility marketing 101

Back when Edison and Westinghouse were bickering over direct or alternating current, competition was obvious: electricity was like any other ware, but by mid century, electricity had long since become a commodity without a marketplace. However, with legislation driving the electricity industry to deregulate, suddenly that assumed woodpile of consumers has collapsed and its contents have the possibility of scattering-with the elbowing-in of online competitors and others. Utilities are being forced to chase that consumer dollar just like any other business.

Faced with the maze of possibilities, many utilities have chosen SFA options-those software/hardware packages that gather information and data on the consumer and consumer uses and allow the utility to extrapolate and readjust their concerns as needed. In short, SFA helps utilities tailor their product-something the retail industry has been doing for years.

The bandwagon

Of course, SFA is borrowed from industries like retail. Saratoga Systems, a UK-based developer and supplier of customer relationship management software, has more than 725 corporate customers worldwide. While some of those customers are huge retail names like Kodak and Levi Straus, they also include a growing number of utilities like Alliant Energy, Baltimore Gas & Electric and Illinois Power.

In a utility-specific survey carried out by Saratoga Systems in March, 86 percent of the 500 respondents said they weren’t happy with any of their service providers (water, gas, or electric). Alistair Bremner, UK managing director of Saratoga Systems, commented, “The results of this survey highlight the need for utility providers to ‘wake up’ and recognize that they need to improve the service they offer to their customers. With increasing competition in the marketplace and a breakdown in the barriers to market entry, it is becoming clear that these providers need to change their attitudes if they are to avoid being outperformed in the increasingly competitive utilities marketplace.”

Dickie agreed, citing more and more companies in the electric industry domino effect that have realized they are selling a product-not just those involved in generation, but T&D and fuel providers as well. He recalled that even a leading executive at Peabody Coal stated recently that he realized he wasn’t in the coal business but the BTU business.

Once such an epiphany hits a company, SFA comes into play. Pacific Gas & Electric chose a Davox system (a company also used by Boston Edison and Hydro Quebec, among others) to adjust their call center capabilities. The result: PG&E reduced headcount by 75 percent, allowing agents to be reassigned to other key areas in the call center and generally improving efficiency. Before installing the system, collections agents used that old stand-by: paper. They received a list of accounts to call each day and did paperwork in triplicate. After automation, call volume nearly doubled.

Faster service, instant information: these equal satisfied customers. Satisfied customers are the backbone of any marketplace-electricity included these days. And sales force automation, which assists in keeping customers happy with their service, isn’t a Goliath to be conquered. Rather, it seems that SFA is one way of preventing customers from picturing the electric industry as such an unfeeling bully and themselves as David with a “I’ll take my dollar and go elsewhere” slingshot.

The survey results from Saratoga Systems are available online (www.saratoga.co.uk), as are customer profiles for Davox (www.davox.com). Jim Dickie can be reached by e-mailing jimdickie@aol.com.

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