Utility customer information systems - the key to smart billing?

Tomorrow’s utility needs an innovative and interactive customer information system that offers real-time data.
Published: Tue 21 Feb 2017

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Ageing utility customer information systems (CIS) and inflexible billing architecture make it challenging for utilities to meet next generation needs which include a wider selection of interactive services.

To meet these more complex expectations, utilities are recognising that CIS upgrades are a major part of the solution. Not only will these upgrades improve communications with the more tech savvy customer, it will also streamline utility back office processes.

One utility, New Zealand’s Mercury Energy — a leading retailer in one of the world’s most competitive energy markets, compiled a compelling case study around the improvement of customer engagement through the adoption of new CIS.

Mercury started offering customers personalised feedback on their energy consumption, automated billing alerts, and easy-to-understand savings advice. They called it the Good Energy Monitor (GEM) programme which unlocked broad business value in a number of vital areas.

Outdated CIS frustrates operations

CIS systems, based on old technologies that were designed over two decades ago, simply cannot support today’s utility which has a growing need for an innovative, interactive and real-time customer service and a variety of billing alternatives.

These old solutions are unable to support interval billing and meter data management (MDM) integration, which is becoming increasingly critical to today’s utility business especially when it comes to capturing fees and recovering overdue bills.

A blessing in disguise is the exodus of senior-level workers who take with them a significant amount of knowledge in older computer programmes. This means that new entrants, generally more tech-savvy, have insufficient knowledge about the old technology and are unable to use it. As a result, utilities have to now meet the new workforce’s expectations around the latest software and solutions which obviously comes with an impressive price tag and some risk.

British Gas experienced this firsthand. The business has to pay £9.5m following failings during its implementation of a new IT billing system which was adopted back in March 2014. Tens of thousands of its business customers were left with delayed and inaccurate bills. Over 6,000 new customers experienced registration delays.

The older systems also frustrate the full integration of business activities and processes. This leads to a lack of communication between departments which results in less than efficient operations. New CIS technologies support the integration of these silos which has benefits for the business, as well as its customers. The seamless flow of real-time data between departments eradicates the need to batch-process data.

Customer-focused CIS

One of the biggest challenges for tomorrow’s utility is that today’s customer wants options when it comes to communicating or interacting with their service providers.

They want to interact according to their own schedules to avoid being inconvenienced.

Electricity consumers expect to be able to go online to pay their bills, update billing records, initiate service orders and monitor their consumption whenever it suits them. And why not? Their banks and other retailers offer this capability already.

This is where CIS technology can be highly advantageous. The technology can support the relaying of real-time data which is especially important when it comes to outages and service restoration. This level of engagement is important in a sector which is becoming increasingly competitive, with customers searching for suppliers that are forward thinking and service orientated.

The new technology will help utilities gain an overall business intelligence through the analysis of new data. This data opens up a new world to utilities as they now have the ability to offer innovative usage pricing programmes. Pricing can be designed to encourage customers into shifting the bulk of their electricity consumption to off-peak, less-costly times of the day.

Both the utility and their customers benefit from this smart billing system for co-operating, customers are awarded better prices and even incentives in some instances and utilities gain a better understanding around anticipated loads and are able to avoid grid overloads.

CIS technology enables interval billing which allows for usage-pricing programmes. The tool monitors electricity consumption in short intervals like 15-minute segments. This is a far cry from the manual reads that utilities had to carry out in the past. Today’s smart metering and grid technology enable utilities to remotely turn meters on and off, creating a greater efficiency for both the consumer and the utility. This enables utilities to operate in a more cost-effective way and reads will be even more accurate.

Billing technology and utility customer information systems

To achieve a highly effective business operation and even stronger customer engagement levels, the utility of the future should be upgrading its billing software so that all processes are integrated and advanced functions are carried out to meet new customer and business expectations.

Not only will these new technologies improve efficiencies, streamline operations and help manage costs, they will also help attract and maintain a loyal customer base.

It is imperative that the new technology is key to conducting business in new and improved ways that will prove to be beneficial to both the business operation and the consumer. Without this win-win scenario, the utility may find that it is not running optimally.