Harry Debes, SPL WorldGroup
The walls around today’s customer information systems (CIS) are about to explode.
When the dust clears, utilities will no longer take a single-system, single-function view of software applications. They’ll be looking instead at entire utility-specific, integrated applications packages-packages that span all aspects of customer management, distribution operations and commodity management.
the utility application evolution
Since the late 1990s, utilities seeking better ways to manage customer data have freed themselves from custom-designed, legacy CIS. In its place are off-the-shelf CIS products from a score of vendors. These cover the basics for call centers, billing, and credit and collections. They integrate relatively easily into their existing back-office, enterprise software (for accounting, financial, HR, etc.).
The more sophisticated of these CIS products now support a wide variety of services:
“- complex billing for commercial and industrial clients,
“- consolidated billing for multi-facility customers,
“- convergent billing that covers multiple product lines,
“- Web self-service,
“- a host of payment options, and
“- CRM expansion.
The best of the products evolve with you-scaling as your customer base grows, enabling rapid rate and price changes, supporting moves toward competition, and fostering easy, low-cost upgrades.
need for a new approach
While the expansion of the CIS footprint is positive, it is not by itself sufficient to meet utilities’ rapidly evolving needs. Even this larger CIS cannot fully exploit every opportunity to deliver, simultaneously, responses to customers’ expanding needs and lower operational costs.
Far better results would likely arise from vendor packages that approached utility-specific needs with coherent solutions for end-to-end business processes. It’s a need analysts are currently recognizing. As Gartner puts it, “There is no sufficient solution suite for utilities. Indeed, a serious inhibitor to realizing innovation and efficiency gains is the absence of end-to-end solutions related to customers and operations.”
North American analyst Warren Causey is more specific: “Pre-packaged integration of logical applications combinations is needed now and would attract an increasing number of major utilities as successes demonstrate value.” And META concurs: “One of the most significant ways to accomplish the cost saving and operational efficiency most all utilities desire is an integrated solution that cuts across retail and distribution environments.”
the new concept
What are the utility-specific business operations most in need of a coherent, end-to-end approach? Top priorities include the integration of:
“- CIS, expanded to include utilities’ specific CRM needs,
“- mobile workforce (i.e. field services) management,
“- asset management,
“- outage management,
“- energy data (meter) management, and
“- commodity management.
All these, of course, need to be informed with geo-spatial information (GIS) and enhanced with appropriate analytics.
The routes to achieving this “total solution” vary. Some vendors will try to do it through acquisitions. Others will try to strengthen VAR and OEM agreements. Some will attempt to enter into joint development and marketing agreements. Others will try to use pre-integration. A few will try to do an internal build, and some will try to use all these approaches.
The reality is, though, that most vendors will fail because all routes to the “total solution” require expertise and cost money, and most CIS vendors do not have the experience, the skills or the financial resources to make this work. Only a handful of vendors will be able to meet this challenge and deliver the value of the solution suite. For this reason, it is critical that customers research not only vendors’ CIS solutions but also their financial strength and ability to execute on their stated plans.
What is certain, however, is that the move toward larger, integrated utility-specific application packages is the trend that will shape the CIS marketplace for at least the next decade.
The proof, of course, will be in the delivery of benefits to the customer. And there will be many:
“- the greater operational and training efficiencies inherent in a common applications architecture;
“- the business process efficiencies that take place once the walls between customer management, distribution operations and commodity management fall;
“- easier management of relationships with vendors that are larger, stronger and better able to respond to a variety of complex utility needs.
The expansion of CIS into a complete utility-specific applications package will not happen overnight. But, it is the trend that will most clearly and inevitably shape the CIS marketplace for the coming decade.
Debes is president and CEO of SPL WorldGroup.