Taking your calls

The deregulation of the UK’s utilities market in 1998 put a whole new emphasis on customer service quality. Utilities faced an increased need to focus on the efficiencies of their customer service channels to generate greater loyalty and attract new customers. Faced with this highly competitive business landscape, the Yorkshire Electricity group needed to find a solution to improve domestic customer service levels within its call centre.

Yorkshire Electricity approached information and communications group CMG Admiral to help it find an integrated solution for improved customer care that would take the company into the future of the energy market. In June 2000, Yorkshire Electricity was awarded the J. D. Power Customer Service Award.

Providing a service

Yorkshire Electricity Group is one of the leading energy providers in the UK and delivers gas and electricity to domestic and business customers. Its main areas of operation are its distribution, supply and services business. Yorkshire Electricity has around two million electricity customers in the Yorkshire and the former Humberside region. Since the deregulation of the gas market, more than 435 000 customers have switched to Yorkshire Electricity’s service.

The retail division within the supply operation of Yorkshire Electricity has an annual turnover of around à‚£1.5 billion ($2 billion) and is responsible for supplying domestic customers across the UK. It has over 1000 staff and a large customer call centre based in Bradford.

Following deregulation at the end of the 1990s, Yorkshire Electricity began to supply gas to customers both within and beyond the Yorkshire and Humberside region. This brought additional complexity to the back-office systems that traditionally served the call centre.

By 1999, the retail division felt that its call centre system was no longer able to cope with the growing market and customer demands. It recognized that a significant investment was needed in new systems in order to stay ahead of the market and retain existing customers while also attracting new ones.

Yorkshire Electricity’s 250-seat call centre was run on legacy systems, many of which had been in place for over 30 years. When customers called, the centre operators needed to search through various different screens and applications to retrieve the relevant information. Each application was incompatible with the next – making integration a difficult task without further investment.

For example, a customer wishing to log a change of address required staff to move through up to 12 different systems and re-key data from one to another. This was not only time consuming but also costly for the company.

The complexity and inefficiencies of the systems also had a direct effect on the quality of the customer service offered. Separate screens existed for gas and electricity customers – operators could not immediately see whether a customer received duel fuel supplies. This led to discrepancies across the two systems.

Steve Tipton, retail business support services manager at Yorkshire Electricity, commented: “It became clear that a significant investment was needed in order to maintain a competitive edge and to hold on to our existing customer base.

Our strategic objectives behind the investment were to increase operational efficiencies in the everyday running of core call centre activities and build a new technical architecture, which would serve as a stable platform for any future requirements. We also needed to provide more reliable access to information for our call centre advisors when they were in contact with customers.”

A plan to improve

Yorkshire Electricity decided to investigate the best way of achieving these business objectives and assigned CMG Admiral, part of CMG plc, the information and communications technology group, to conduct a review of its call centre efficiencies and processes. The report produced by CMG Admiral confirmed the need to update the system in order to provide a better customer service.

As a result of the review, Yorkshire Electricity identified a set of clear, strategic business needs. This enabled the company to produce an ‘in principle’ project outline at the beginning of 1999. This became the basis for a tender document to select the right company to work on the project.

Yorkshire Electricity began its search with the Utilities Vendor Database (UVDB), provided by Achilles Information Ltd. This database is designed to help utility companies select prequalified suppliers from a registered list. Yorkshire Electricity then invited four companies from the UVDB to tender for the call centre project. The retail division was looking for a company that could work alongside a dedicated team within Yorkshire Electricity to provide business process and delivery capability.

Each of the four companies selected was invited to an initial workshop to discuss the specific business and operational needs of the new system. Following this first session, each company produced a proposal outlining the suggested software solution and its approach to the management programme. At the end of ten weeks, CMG Admiral was selected as the best company for the job.

Steve Tipton commented: “The criteria for selection was clear from the outset. The successful company would need to demonstrate previous experience and a clear understanding of the ways in which our call centre processes could be improved. We chose CMG Admiral because of its in-depth knowledge of the call centre business, and the amount of experience in this area. CMG Admiral presented us with an ambitious and detailed proposal which we felt would meet our strategic objectives within our stated parameters.

“We were also impressed with CMG Admiral’s understanding of the market we operate in and with the company’s credibility in the marketplace. It demonstrated a sound understanding of the problems we faced. All of these factors suggested that we would work well together.”

Yorkshire Electricity awarded the contract to CMG Admiral in April 1999. A specially selected project team from Yorkshire Electricity and CMG Admiral began to work together at the Bradford site. An independent consultant was also brought in to oversee the development. By November 1999 the proof of concept was delivered to Yorkshire Electricity.

CMG Admiral chose GT-X framework from Graham Technology for Yorkshire Electricity’s call centre to support integration with Yorkshire Electricity’s current architecture.

Using the technology

The project was rolled out in two phases. The first phase was tried on an initial 25 operators who were trained on the new system, which eventually went live at the end of 1999.

Figure 1. Julie Jaglowski: acceptance of the new system required the call centre operators to take a ‘leap of faith’
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Julie Jaglowski, the customer services manager at Yorkshire Electricity comments: “The initial 25 operators found that acceptance of the system took a ‘leap of faith’ in the early stages. Many found themselves checking the back-end systems to ensure the changes had been recorded. Once trust had been established the advisors could not imagine going back to the old system. The feedback from stage one was extremely positive.”

Phase two rolled out the service to a further 80 operators. This was completed by November 2000. Julie Jaglowski added: “By completion of phase two, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the most complex call centre processes which yielded the greatest returns were available on the front end application. We then began to realize the full benefits of the system.”

Click here to enlarge image

GT-X allows call centre advisors to conduct core processes such as change of occupancy transfers or change of supplier enquiries within one front office system. Customer details no longer have to be re-keyed into separate systems and the number of screens needed to answer most customer queries has been reduced to a maximum of six screens.

This means customer enquiries are answered much more quickly and can usually be resolved during the first phone call. Call times have fallen by half while still maintaining the level of information gathered from the customer. This reduction in core time allows greater opportunities for cross selling and up-selling to customers. As the system is also intuitive, leading the operator through the process automatically, manual mistakes have been avoided.

Improved services

Since November 2000 Yorkshire Electricity has seen an 18.5 per cent increase in call handling and a significant increase in targeted sales. The advisors using the new system (which equate to 30 per cent of the call centre agents) generated 10 000 additional energy sales during 2000 in comparison to a total of 14 000 sales across the whole call centre in 1999. The new, integrated application has also enabled system training times to be significantly reduced – from a week and a half on the old systems to just two or three days.

While the benefits are now clear, the project took a substantial investment of time in order to reach this stage. In retrospect some valuable lessons were learnt along the way.

Figure 2. Steve Tipton: The design had to be reviewed when the realities of the true scale of the project emerged
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Steve Tipton commented: “It was plain [to see] that initial estimates from CMG Admiral did not fully cover the sheer difficulty of the existing systems and the subsequent complexity involved in automating the business processes conducted on them. We were sure CMG Admiral was the right company for our needs, but the initial design had to be reviewed as the realities of integrating our call centre applications began to emerge.”

Many of the usual methodologies used by CMG Admiral had to be reviewed and adapted in order to create the desired system. The project was an important learning experience for CMG Admiral as it brought to light some potential pitfalls that had not been anticipated.

The first lesson to learn is the importance of setting achievable targets and milestones throughout each phase of the project in order to break the project into manageable chunks. This helps to maintain a regular review process. Another important point is to appreciate the importance of team dynamics and spend time choosing the right skills set.

“From the beginning our expectations were extremely high,” says Tipton. “It is vital that companies manage initial expectations from the very beginning to ensure greater success. We were very keen to involve internal staff and ease the cultural acceptance of the changes. However, we introduced the system slightly too early so that momentum dissipated before the live solution could be delivered across the call centre.”

Yorkshire Electricity now has a solid technical foundation upon which further projects and services can be offered. By integrating many disparate systems the technology has allowed the retail division to move from a domestic site focused business to a customer focused business. The technology can now support important customer facing activities. In parallel to the call centre development, CMG Admiral has also developed an integrated data warehousing application for customer data. Facilities are being developed to permit updates to customer information gathered by the call centre agents within the warehouse application.

Yorkshire Electricity is also planning a new initiative for 2001 aimed at providing a complete ‘one-stop-shop’ contact facility for customers’ complete home service requirements. This will involve more products and greater service provisions offered directly to individuals. It will be supported by a complete marketing campaign which is to be launch in 2001. As a result of GT-X, implementation of all future business requirements can be supported by the existing system.

GT-X: a flexible and scalable solution

GT-X is a new approach to developing customer relationship systems which enable businesses to directly represent their processes in software. GT-X uses a three-tier architecture separating presentation, business logic and enterprise integration to ensure flexibility and scalability.

GT-X allows for direct access into business processes from every electronic channel available today – PC clients, internet browsers, WAP enabled mobile phones, electronic organizers and interactive digital TV.

There are three main components that comprise GT-X:

  • Business process modelling and automation
  • Enterprise integration
  • Multichannel enterprise architecture.

At the heart of GT-X is a business process engine which delivers channel independent business processes. These business processes combine high-level processes with form descriptions, database interactions, and scripting. The business processes are developed using a rich toolset which supports all aspects of business process modelling, editing and debugging.

Design goal

Graham Technology’s aim was to develop a system which allowed businesses to model their processes in software where visibility was maintained, but enabled change at a rate determined by the business and not by the limitations of the technology.

This can only be achieved when the business model and the execution of that business model are separated. GT-X provides a rich tooling environment for modelling every aspect of the business process and a business process engine that will execute this model directly. This allows the focus to be on developing business processes which are efficient and differentiating rather than on implementation details.

The business model is stored in a repository with full configuration management which supports collaborative and iterative development.

The business process engine executes the business model, taking care of complex task sequencing and driving the flow of information across the enterprise systems of the business.

The enterprise integration layer separates the business logic layer from the underlying enterprise systems. All of the services offered by the enterprise information systems of the business are presented to the business logic layer through service broker architecture. This architecture protects and leverages the investment in legacy systems and allows easy integration of multiple data sources, ERP systems, CTI and any other system that the business relies on.

Integration is achieved using a proprietary service object mechanism with published API’s and SDK’s available for both C++ and Java. Standard object models such as COM and CORBA are also supported with plug-and-play integration capability.

One of the key architectural decisions with GT-X was to adopt an ultra-thin client architecture. This is where the business logic and presentation logic is contained on the server which allows each client to access the presentation logic that is appropriate for their channel. It enables flexible presentation and the sharing of business logic across all channels providing a single, consistent view of the business.

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