In today’s rapidly evolving energy industry, utilities are feeling the pressure to upgrade their customer information systems (CIS) and call center technologies quickly, cost-effectively and with minimal impact to operations. The reality of industry deregulation and performance-based rate setting has made customer service critical to utilities. In addition, utility end-users are demanding options that were unheard of even 10 years ago, including electronic bill payment and presentment (EBPP), usage tracking, web chat, e-mail response and Internet access to billing information. Industry experts predict that future customer relationship management systems will need to achieve an unprecedented level of sophistication.
With many utilities’ legacy customer information and billing systems years, and even decades, out of date, getting up to speed-and staying current-is no easy task. Significant costs are involved with implementing and maintaining a CIS and call center, and utilities can’t afford downtime during the transition. Solutions need to be implemented and refined quickly, with minimal glitches during roll-out into the ‘real world.’ In short, to remain profitable, utilities must develop new technologies quickly, affordably and effectively. Orcom Solutions’ Usability Lab evolved as an answer to this product development challenge, not only for Orcom’s utility customers, but for Orcom itself.
Usability Lab ID’s and Tests Enhancements
Today, utilities like the City of Austin, Montana Power and KN Energy, and energy service providers like Washington Gas Energy Services and Green Mountain.com partner with Orcom to improve customer service and reduce costs. Orcom operates its CIS application on behalf of many such clients, not only delivering the functionality but often using the application to perform business processes like customer service for its clients. Being the developer and the user puts the company in a unique position to improve the product’s performance and usability.
In Orcom’s customer service center, customer service representatives (CSRs) answer thousands of calls each day from utility end-users. Using E-CIS, these CSRs handle situations ranging from emergency calls for gas leaks to routine service order requests to billing questions. To take full advantage of this unique insider view of their product in action, Orcom created a subset of CSRs in what it calls its Usability Lab.
Through the Usability Lab, call center employees and development staff drive E-CIS development, road-testing new application features in a live environment with the goals of improving CSR efficiency and increasing service to customers. The Usability Lab is not so much a physical ‘lab’ as it is a multi-step product and process development system. First, potential improvements are identified through the analysis of extensive quality monitoring data gathered daily from throughout the customer service center and flow charts documenting steps required to complete discrete business processes. After analyzing this data, the team defines enhancements, scopes the development effort, and develops or incorporates new functionality or technologies.
Prototype development follows, which is tested by Usability Lab team members familiar with using the system in a real-world setting. During this testing, developments that meet pre-established goals are identified; those that do not meet these standards continue to be modified, tested and evaluated. Once full prototype functionality is achieved, the product is developed, the system is documented, and end users are trained. Finally, the new technology is rolled out into the ‘live’ work environment in stages to ensure that service to customers is not affected as CSRs become familiar with the new tool. This real-life testing also ensures that the technology will operate effectively in clients’ own call centers.
Digital Dashboard Targets Efficiency and Quality
Digital Dashboard was the first E-CIS enhancement developed and refined in the Usability Lab. It is a custom-designed graphical user interface that speeds call center workflow by providing one-stop access to multiple types of key customer account information on a single screen. In addition, a CSR can keep an unlimited amount of accounts open simultaneously for cross-checking and multi-tasking. The result is faster responses to customer questions, improved customer service and more efficient workflow.
All Digital Dashboard’s features are a direct result of CSR input. An Orcom development team videotaped CSRs taking calls with the original interface, and CSRs were solicited for input on which features of the existing system they found helpful, which features were inefficient, and what improvements would make their jobs easier. Once the Digital Dashboard was developed, CSRs were again videotaped to compare usage, and were again interviewed to determine the development’s success and any necessary further enhancements.
One example of a CSR-inspired feature was the’dream screen,’ an account profile that remains constant on the Digital Dashboard as long as the account is being accessed. This eliminates the need for a CSR to click through multiple screens to retrieve multiple types of customer information such as address, account number, billing history and service order status. Each CSR can specify the information contained in this account profile based on their customer base or business process.
Another improvement was Digital Dashboard’s ‘scratch pad.’ Using this on-screen notepad, CSRs can type notes while on a call, and then highlight and double click on these notes to add them directly into the account record in E-CIS. The scratch pad further aids CSRs through a type-ahead feature that automatically translates pre-defined abbreviations into words (i.e. ‘btw’ automatically becomes ‘by the way’).
“After mentoring other CSRs using Digital Dashboard, I can see that the scratch pad saves a lot of time. The fact that you can type on screen, and quickly transfer data from the note pad easily is one of the best features,” said Martin Vargas, an Orcom CSR.
Vargas gave examples of other time-saving features provided by Digital Dashboard, including the ability to quickly access information from calls previously handled during a shift. “Having a history of the last 99 accounts you have accessed lets you go back and check the accounts to make sure you had no unfinished business.”
According to Len Tanner, Orcom’s customer services director, Digital Dashboard reduced average call times by 40 seconds in the first few weeks it was in use. “Labor costs account for around 70 percent of a call center’s overall costs, and handle time is a big part of that,” said Tanner, who has been in the call center arena for eight years. “Because Digital Dashboard reduces call handling times, the savings can be significant.” Much of this increased productivity has occurred in the call ‘wrap,’ the follow-up data entry tasks that take place immediately after a CSR talks to a customer and before they are ready to receive another call.
“We have seen an increase in the number of calls handled per hour,” said Don Booth, Orcom’s manager of customer service. He also sees an increase in job satisfaction among the CSRs using Digital Dashboard, which in the call center industry translates to retention, another cost savings.
CSRs currently use Digital Dashboard to handle calls for KN Energy, a division of Kinder Morgan. KN Energy provides natural gas utility services to 215,000 agricultural and commercial customers in rural Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado and makes available to these customers a wide range of billing choices. For example, the company offers a combined bill for distribution and supply, duplicate billing for landlord situations, automatic bank payment, and multi-provider billing for participants in the Choice Gas program.
With a traditional user interface, the presence of so many options might cause delays and inconvenience for the CSRs handling calls. Digital Dashboard is designed to address challenges like this through its simplified searching capabilities, multi-screen interface and quick navigation. Tanner said that he is pleased with the improvement in productivity and call handling accuracy. Orcom plans to roll out Digital Dashboard to its other call center clients subsequent to the KN Energy rollout.
The next enhancement to Digital Dashboard will be ‘wizards,’ Booth said. Similar to the setup wizards used in desktop computing, these automated, multi-step process paths are designed to guide a CSR quickly and seamlessly through the required steps for specific processes. The first ‘wizard’ currently in production supports high priority calls from customers who may have natural gas leaks. It has been designed to ensure that critical information is verified to ensure customer safety and to comply with regulations.
According to Tanner, the Usability Lab adds significant value to Orcom’s offering, regardless of whether a client uses ‘rcom’s call center or manages its own. Either way, they benefit from technology that is continuously improved based on daily use. And the technology is developed by an IT department focused exclusively on the E-CIS and the utility industry. While the Digital Dashboard CSR interface was the first result of the Usability Lab, Orcom plans next to enlist it for enhancements to other areas of its billing technology.
The Usability Lab is cost-effective for Orcom as well. Because testing and development occur simultaneously and continuously, both processes have been expedited. The company not only achieves speed to market but is able to efficiently and cost-effectively allocate its own R&D resources. Additionally, involving operations and call center staff in all stages of testing and development ensures a more functional product.
All in all, Tanner said he is pleased with how the Usability Lab has aided development and improved call center operations.
“The Usability Lab helps Orcom continue to enhance customer service for our call center clients, as well as ensures a quality product for all our E-CIS users,” he said. “It further helps our clients by using a cost-effective development process to enhance the customer relationship management tools to improve both customer service and productivity, both of which add to a utility’s bottom line.”
Mark Crapeau is executive vice president of Orcom Solutions.