Customer-focused practices were once a competitive differentiator within the utility industry. Today, they are becoming a competitive necessity. Areva T&D explains how it works with its customers to develop its business.

As a leading supplier of equipment and automation solutions for the energy utility industry, Areva T&D strongly believes that the evolving needs of customers are the driving force behind transformations in the industry. Consequently, the company is committed to channeling customer feedback into its product development. Philippe Guillemot, CEO, Areva T&D, notes: “While we progress through technological decisions, we rely on customers, the future users, to guide us through strategic development”.

The company’s Users Groups examplifies its customer led approach. For more than 17 years Areva T&D has been been inviting its customers to Users Groups. Organized three times a year, these regional conferences offer customers a unique opportunity to network with peers, exchange feedback with technical experts, share their experience in the use of Areva T&D automation solutions and influence the direction of research projects within the company.

The first Users Groups were held back in 1989 in North America. However, the conferences proved to be so successful – from both a customer and a company perspective – that the initiative was expanded to cover Europe and Asia Pacific, allowing for a better understanding of the specific needs of each market. With an annual conference now held in each of the three regions, the events attract over 450 attendees from more than 40 countries every year.

Customer driven

A central philosophy of the event is that customers and their needs must drive the proceedings. Consistent with this principle, the 5th European Users Group Conference, which was held in Paris, France from 26-28 November 2006, was chaired by Hugh Jones of EirGrid, Ireland’s grid operator.

Customers are also responsible for setting the conference agenda. Prior to the event attendees are invited to suggest subjects for discussion. The most popular proposals are then put forward to constitute the conference agenda.

The event is organized by Areva T&D’s automation business unit, so the subjects are focused on software and systems. For example last year’s key topics included: Energy Management Systems (EMS) – SCADA Distribution Management Systems (DMS); Liberalized Energy Market systems; and Substation Automation Offerings (DCS).

Exchange and networking

For customers, the Users Groups are above all a unique forum for exchanging ideas with peers and with Areva T&D. Hugh Jones remarks that customers can “learn from each other’s successes, and learn from how others have solved problems similar to those we face.”

An example of this is that before customers integrate Areva T&D software, they must first reorganize their database. Even though Areva T&D offers recommendations on software implementation, many customers choose to configure their power systems by themselves, in order to reflect their company philosophy. However, during this process they frequently encounter problems and the Users Group is the ideal place to find solutions from like-minded peers. Indeed the Users Groups create a real support network among customers who help each other during and even beyond the event.

A session at one of Areva T&D’s Users Groups
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As well as offering a unique opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction and networking, the Users Groups serve as a forum for exchanges between customers and Areva T&D. During the conferences, customers have the chance to talk on a one-to-one basis with the technical experts who develop the company’s software and products.

Under normal circumstances customer contact is primarily handled by project managers and sales community members while technical experts devote their time to research and development (R&D), and project engineering. As such, customers appreciate the opportunity to speak directly with specialists, who can more fully answer their technical questions. The Areva T&D experts, meanwhile, are able to determine the finer points of users’ technical requirements and desires for future developments.

The Users Group conferences are also the forum for Areva T&D to share its understanding and timing of the key drivers that will shape the energy industry down the road. The accurate assessment of these drivers is an important input into an overall effective business strategy.

Testing ground

From Areva T&D’s point-of-view, the Users Groups present an invaluable source of inspiration and a testing ground for product development. During the event, the company’s technical experts present their product roadmaps for the coming years and then invite customer feedback. This part of the conference is a highly interactive process. Customers can ask questions, make suggestions, and discuss their specific concerns with regard to the product roadmaps announced.

Areva T&D also presents a number of solutions it has customized for specific clients in order to assess the appeal of such innovations. On this basis, the company can evaluate whether to make a given customization more widely available by, for instance, integrating it into its software or system offerings. An example of this process in action is given below.

Following the electricity blackouts that occurred in the eastern United States in August 2003, Areva T&D began to work with a few key customers who had ideas and interest in new user interface capabilities that would improve their ability to recognize developing problems on the electricity grid.

During the 2004 North American Users Group conference, a discussion session was held to explore these ideas and to demonstrate some new technologies and approaches that could provide some solutions. This Users Group session lead to the formation of an Areva T&D development team, and to the establishment of a group of customers who were willing to invest in the initial development of these User Interface capabilities focused on improving ‘situational awareness’.

EMS-DMS (Energy Management and Distribution Management) applications are a regular topic of discussion at the Users Group conferences
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By the 2005 North American conference, a joint funded development programme was announced, leading several additional customers to join the programme. In December 2006, a Beta release of e-terravision 1.0 was delivered to the joint funding customers, and in first quarter of 2007 the first commercial product release of e-terravision is scheduled to be available.

Above all, the roadmaps help customers to better plan the development of their own utilities. As they know how products are likely to evolve, they can make better informed decisions about equipment purchases, expansion plans, or structural reorganization. Most of all, though, customers get to influence Areva T&D’s product development so that it can better suit their own future needs.

Customer opinion counts

To ensure that customer input is made to count beyond the conferences Areva T&D formally measures and assesses user opinions through voting and surveys. Laurent Demortier, executive vice president, Areva T&D’s automation business unit, explains the concept of Software Improvement Request voting: “During the conference, the user community votes for the most important improvements. At Areva T&D we then allocate a portion of our internal R&D budget each year to implement the top-voted customer improvements”. In 2005, the company dedicated some 4000 hours of development time to the most popular improvements.

Finally, each conference is itself subject to customer feedback. A survey is conducted at the end of every Users Group, in order to ascertain the attendees’ opinions on its organization, content, logistics, etc. These comments are then shared with the Users Group Customer Board members, which act on this information to improve future conferences. In other words, the Users Groups are subject to the same customer-driven improvement process as the products they aim to spotlight.

Concrete benefits

The Users Groups are therefore a highly customer-focused approach that pertinently reflects Areva T&D’s customer-driven strategy. Yet, there remains one key question that any self-respecting businessman must ask: “What are the concrete benefits of this customer/company interaction?”

Philippe Guillemot believes he can pinpoint specific examples of successes that have originated from Users Groups.

Firstly, he cites a new decision-support system that is revolutionizing the user-interface environment of Areva T&D’s energy management systems. “As a result of customers’ valuable input in past Users Group meetings – combined with our strategic partnership with Microsoft – we have been able to launch this new application, which allows operators to make faster decisions and thereby reduce the risk of blackouts”, he asserts.

Philippe Guillemot also notes that customer input at previous conferences has helped the company to better manage the consequences of increasing wind-generation penetration in grids. Many users had expressed operational concerns, and Areva T&D has consequently “taken these into account when upgrading our network management applications”. As a result, dispatchers can now more easily anticipate the behavior of their transmission and distribution networks in relation to weather predictions. Ultimately, this brings greater visibility and control on generation resources.

In summary, he notes that “Improvements such as this would not have been possible without user feedback and our customers’ commitment to a long-term partnership with us. Involving our customers at the very early stages of our product developments also considerably increases our effectiveness and reduces our time-to-market.”

Customer-driven future

Areva T&D is now enjoying the fruits of its customer-focused philosophy. The Users Groups have gone from strength to strength, and the company is even considering expanding the concept beyond its automation business to drive development in other product fields.

Areva T&D firmly believes that customer input is essential in helping to develop innovative and relevant solutions for the transmission and distribution industry and consequently in contributing to industry breakthroughs. The Users Groups continue to provide an important opportunity to understand, influence, and prepare for the future”.