The first and key points of interaction between utilities and their customers are the billing and customer care functions.
How utilities provide these functions says a lot about how well they know their customers and the quality of their systems and services. Get it right and the billing is more accurate and relevant and customers are more satisfied and loyal. Get it wrong and customers may switch or refuse new service offerings, impacting on ROI and potentially even the company’s future economic health.
Engerati has identified some key impact areas that need to be addressed and updated in the billing and customer care area: Service optimisation, multi-channel customer engagement and back office efficiency and transformation.
The big challenge with these is the complexity of a typical utility’s systems in which millions or billions of process transactions are taking place, Pieter Bastiaan Jan Ijzerman, Business Development Manager – ESI at IT provider Critical Software, points out in an Engerati webinar.
He begins by discussing some examples of service ‘failings’ from utilities, such as not issuing accurate bills on time, inadequate complaint resolution and delays in new customer registration.
Such issues aren’t malicious, he says, but given the complexity, “statistically, eventually something will go wrong.”
And the losses can amount typically to between 1-5% of a utility’s revenue, not to mention the collateral damage such as loss of brand value, he adds.
Potential revenue gaps in distribution businesses with complex meter-to-cash processes
The good news – and taking a leaf out of the book of the telecom industry, which no longer faces these issues – is that they can be solved.
The process, named ‘revenue assurance’, is conceptually straightforward and involves collecting raw data from each of the systems, for example the meter, the billing software, the CRM software, etc. ‘Business rules’ are then applied to compare the data streams with any differences reflecting an issue in the particular database.
This may be as simple as a misspelt customer’s name or something more complex such as a customer going unbilled.
“We recommend a utility to have an ‘A team’ of analysts to root out the errors before the customer is hurt,” says Ijzerman. “Start small, ask questions to find out where there are problems and over time a culture of continual improvement will be created.”
Multi-channel customer engagement
Multi-channel customer engagement – or as Kirill Rechter, CEO of billing specialist LogNet prefers, ‘omnichannel’ customer engagement – opens the way for customer self service and intelligent billing with the aim to reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction.
“It is about engagement via automation,” says Rechter pointing to the five key aspects it should comprise – customer identity, information provision, intelligence, execution capability and the engagement.
“Omnichannel engagement must be based on customer preferences and data,” he says, pointing out that customers must be able to choose their channels of preference.
This also may vary with the message content – for example, an outage notification might require a different channel to an energy efficiency tip – and the utility’s media priorities.
Multi-channel customer engagement
This is monetised with customers moving to digital platforms, in much the same way that they have done for banking.
“Utilities need to think of themselves not only as service providers but also as information providers, using technology to provide personalised information,” says Rechter. “Providers that do that on a multi-channel platform will enjoy a competitive advantage.”
As case studies, he reviews the experiences of First Utility in UK, a fast growing multiplay provider, and Amigo Solar, which has developed an innovative business model for microgrids in Chile.
Back office transformation
Closely related to the multi-channel customer engagement function is the need for efficiency and transformation in the back office, as this is the core of the utility business as it becomes more and more digitised.
“It is about introducing a process dependent model and moving away from the existing people dependent model,” says Rechter. “A modern architecture is needed that combines together all the services and drives transparent and documented business processes throughout the utility.”
Some issues that need to be considered are forecasting of future business processes, automatic process scheduling, customer self-service, reporting and administration.
Rechter recommends trouble ticketing as an essential back office tool to handle process flow across the organisation, along with a dashboard to optimise tasks. Error resolution should be automated, with all automation via intelligent business process management (iBPM).
As an example use case, he reviews the automation of business processes with the Camunda open source BPM platform.
“Impacts of a transformed back office include money saved through saved call centre costs and improved customer satisfaction and a more dynamic and real time mode of operation,” Rechter concludes.