Tailor the Bill for a Custom(er) Fit

by Jim Delande

Utilities are always searching for ways to improve the bottom line. Whether reducing operating costs through new technologies, enhanced efficiency or automation, the ultimate goal is to find solutions with an aggressive ROI to rapidly impact business performance. Finding opportunities among the various aspects of serving the customer is not always simple, but one of the primary areas for such initiatives is easily identified–the call center.

The call center represents a utility’s largest service expense, with studies indicating that these costs represent 17 percent to 22 percent of the overall cost to serve customers. Most utilities have already turned to interactive voice response (IVR) systems, web self-service and other methods of handling customer inquiries to avoid an expensive live conversation with a customer service representative. Given these cost savings, it makes sense that utilities would be doing everything possible to eliminate those inquiries altogether, and where a call is required, to reduce the talk time for each customer call. One way to accomplish this goal is to take advantage of the most consistent touch point a utility has with its customers–the bill–to provide them with a more user-friendly, easy-to-understand document.

EDP can make it happen

When utilities are able to present bills in a manner that makes them easier to understand, including elements such as color formats, language preference, past-usage graphs, self-service web pointers, etc., overall call volume declines dramatically. Customer satisfaction increases and support costs decline–the holy grail of every customer service executive.

With the addition of a robust enterprise document presentment (EDP) solution, forward-thinking utilities around the globe have found that they can meet their goals for increased customer satisfaction while simultaneously reducing call volume and talk time. These early-adopting utilities represent just the beginning of this trend, since according to IDC, the dynamic enterprise publishing market, of which EDP is a part, is growing at nearly 27 percent and is forecast to attain software revenue of more than $1 billion by 2009.

In many cases, though, the rigid nature of billing output, particularly from older and disparate CIS and CRM systems, greatly limits the way this information can be formatted and presented, resulting in consumer confusion and ultimately, an expensive customer service call. With utilities indicating that 15 percent or more of the calls they receive originate as a result of customer confusion related to bill interpretation, these savings can quickly add up.

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Although inflexible back-end systems can limit changes to bill output formatting and presentation, this type of initiative is not as impossible as it may sound. In fact, optimized bill presentment can provide a significant return on investment, even if hurdles remain. The complexity of interconnecting incompatible legacy CIS systems brought together by industry consolidation, the addition of new products and services, and the integration of new systems should not be underestimated, but when the challenge of integrating these technologies can be overcome, the impact on customers is dramatic.

An effective way to describe an EDP solution would be to envision an application at the intersection of IT, customer service and marketing for personalized messaging, customer satisfaction, retention, reduction in support costs, and ultimately organic revenue growth. Putting a document output management strategy in place that incorporates an enterprise document presentment solution will enable utilities to take data streams from a variety of sources, in virtually any format, to create and distribute easy to understand bills that speak to the customer with personalized messages. EDP allows utilities to distribute bills via virtually any communication channel the customer prefers–print, e-mail, fax, SMS or via a utility’s extranet. When combined with a robust customer relationship and billing system, EDP solutions can provide an end-to-end solution that reduces the cost to serve while improving the document’s ability to communicate with the consumer.

Another significant benefit of deploying an EDP solution is the control that organizations gain to access data throughout the enterprise. This enables them to put marketing messaging and offer integration into the hands of those who know it best, the marketing department. No longer is marketing reliant on a heavily stretched IT department to integrate its messages, campaigns and compliance requirements. Rather than waiting days, weeks or even longer for IT to implement marketing initiatives, the marketing department need only access a browser-based application to add or change business rules, offers, segments, etc. This same dynamic messaging capability can also provide rapid brand identity changes, which are becoming more prevalent as utilities continue to consolidate.

End of the green screen

Eliminating calls, while providing considerable bottom line contribution, is only the beginning. The next step is to find solutions that reduce the overall talk time of the representative. While customer relationship management (CRM) systems can provide a history of previous interactions with each customer, they may not provide insight into a current call.

Therefore, it is critical that customer service representatives (CSRs) have access to an archived version of the actual bill the customer is calling about, rather than a green screen of data alone. With an easily retrieved facsimile of the bill, the CSR can address questions while viewing the document the customer has in front of him or her, in a manner that makes sense to the caller. Bill inquiry issues can be quickly identified and rectified for further operational efficiencies and customer satisfaction. The ability to immediately redistribute the bill electronically translates into a reduction in days-sales-outstanding for customers that require a new bill be sent.

With the understanding that multiple exposures to offers and marketing messages are often necessary to change a customer’s behavior, the ability to view the actual document also allows the CSR to reinforce the marketing messages that are contained on the bill via a two-way conversation. For initiatives like electronic invoicing, this capability can provide an extremely compelling return on investment.

Climate change as an opportunity

Addressing the issue of global climate change also poses challenges for the utilities industry, its billing systems, and how they leverage customer communications, but it can also become an asset in driving changes in a customer’s behaviour.

In Europe, an energy services directive was enacted to drive conservation through customer bills. According to the directive, bills should be presented in clear and understandable terms and “provide customers with a comprehensive account of current energy costs.” The directive was designed to enable consumers to make better-informed decisions about managing their individual energy consumption by making the following information available on bills, contracts, transactions and/or receipts, in clear and understandable terms:

  • Information about current actual energy prices and consumption
  • Comparative information showing the customer’s consumption for the same period in the previous year, preferably in graphical form.
  • Wherever possible, comparative information for an average or benchmarked user in the same category.
  • Another driving factor in which global climate change impacts billing and customer service is the entire process of bill production and postal distribution. Not only is this costly to the utility, it is also costly to the environment. For an industry that is not often associated with being green, the ability to leverage the white space on a bill using rules-based personalized marketing messages as an incentive for customers to switch to electronic invoices can provide substantial cost savings. Not only does this reinforce their commitment to the environment, it also provides the customer with a sense of control over his or her relationship with the utility.

The savings add up

Enterprise document presentment solutions can provide bottom-line impact in multiple facets of supporting the customer. Utilities that have implemented an EDP solution have improved customer service, reduced inquiry calls and talk time, cut document design and production costs and increased e-invoice conversion. With significant impact across multiple departments, the savings quickly add up. In most cases, an EDP solution will provide a return on investment in less than a year, with many utilities realizing an ROI of three to six months.


Jim Delande is the director of product marketing for StreamServe Inc. Deland has designed and implemented innovative B2C customer marketing initiatives. StreamServe Utilities, designed for use with the SAP for Utilities portfolio, is an SAP-endorsed business solution.

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