However unpalatable it is to traditionalists, there is no avoiding the fact that delivering a good quality product in a timely fashion is no longer the only prerequisite for commercial survival. Utilities around the world, along with their counterparts in telecommunications, retail and many other sectors, face the harsh realities of a new business environment – fuelled by varying degrees of competition and deregulation – in which customer service is paramount.
Until recently, the main point of contact for a utility with its subscribers was the periodic bill. Today, customers expect to be able to telephone or email a call centre and even interact with the utility and its representatives through the internet.
These so-called “touch points” between the customer and the service provider are valuable and their power should not be underestimated. If handled successfully from the customer’s perspective, they can foster awareness of the utility’s brand and obtain data about particular businesses or households. This leads to marketing and selling opportunities of further products and services and a host of related revenue-generating applications – all based around the ability to turn that raw data into useful information.
In addition to a competitive, differentiating service portfolio, many utilities are now using this information to “personalize” relationships with their customers, often through empowering them to view and settle their accounts, for example, and tailoring promotional offers to the customer’s circumstances. In addition to branding and customer care initiatives, there is also a constant pressure to improve operational and administrative efficiency.
All three goals are achievable through exceeding customer expectations and meeting regulatory requirements, but to achieve the necessary level of information demands a sophisticated and flexible software that falls under the broad, and often misused, heading of Customer Relationship Management (CRM). However, CRM is not technology; it is a strategy defined by the particular business.
Put another way, CRM is whatever it takes to enable a sound relationship with the customer. The technology supports that strategy – the intelligent “mining” and correlation of data helps inform – and so retain the customer and promotes the business effectively.
Designed for flexibility
Utilities already have data and skillsets. In a well-run organization, Customer Information Systems (CIS) optimize these existing resources in line with the strategy that encompasses customer care, billing and CRM. In an increasingly volatile environment, where change is rapid and constant, these intelligent systems can help manage that uncertainty.
The DST Innovis family of integrated customer management and billing products – incorporating the Affinity CIS together with the AWD CRM and workflow system – reflects the growing number of ways a utility interacts with its customers. The numerous modules reflect the various portals or touch points as well as the industry trends in customer care and billing. For instance, billing is traditionally based on property, so if the customer moved, the record was outdated; today the trend is to follow the individual, so the system is a more accurate part of a wider CIS.
It is vital that a CIS developer is proactive, ensuring the system is based on international standards and is flexible enough to support changes in the business quickly and efficiently through the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Not only is there no need for any part of a utility’s CIS activity to be proprietary, but there is also a real opportunity for early adopters who can pursue aggressive strategic goals while being confident that their system will support their customers.
Figure 1. The Affinity modules reflect the customer care and billing strategies of the utility
At the core of any customer-focused strategy is the CIS system that, put simply, ensures customers are billed for the commodity. In the past, changes in the business process meant that the software had to be altered significantly. DST Innovis Affinity CIS is designed specifically to reflect, and align itself with an organization’s critical business processes, in contrast to a traditional transaction-driven system. So the same core software will support a system in which debt adheres to property not the individual, and vice versa. The front end – the screens viewed by the utility personnel – can be customized ensuring that the system reflects the specific business processes of the utility.
The benefits of this modular, open approach include the speed and cost-effectiveness of training. However, the processes evolves the underlying mechanisms to configure and run Affinity CIS remain the same. The billing functionality is retained, but enhanced by this flexibility. Its knowledge management, such as intelligently barring or enabling data entry into specific fields, ensures a logical and consistent approach for customer interaction.
An effective CIS must go far beyond chasing outstanding money, enabling the utility to pull out relevant information about specific customers and consumer groups. These activities can include examining demographic trends based on postal and Acorn codes, and linking services with customers’ lifestyles.
Payment patterns can reveal opportunities for more efficient payment methods, such as direct debit. The Affinity’s Executive Reporting Module that controls these activities, enables the user to manipulate the data from within their chosen decision support tool, such as Microsoft Excel.
Empowering the customer
The internet offers strong revenue-generating possibilities, as long as the strategy for handling Web and email interaction is in place, supported by the relevant fronts and back office information-handling systems. The CyberCSR Web tool – the internet portal or conduit to Affinity CIS – is already proven in various marketplaces, including Cable TV and some utilities. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Web-enabling customers is giving them the ability to view and administer their own accounts in a straightforward, secure fashion.
There is software available that allows each customer’s site activity to be monitored, such as screens viewed and the mouse choices made, so that clever site orientation can place strong marketing messages along the natural route taken by the viewer. One utility, for instance, encourages the customer to view a graphic of a kitchen. Clicking on the dishwasher reveals how much water the average appliance uses. This could be linked to offers for environmentally friendly goods, perhaps with discounts for purchasing on line. There are many possibilities for both business and residential customers – particularly as around 80 per cent of all internet surfing is from work-related machines.
The emergence of CyberCSR follows a self-help trend that began with Interactive Voice Response (IVR), enabling the customer to carry out simple tasks as and when they choose. DST Innovis believes that these tools are not a replacement for human interaction, but they can be used as an enhancement, allowing business transactions to take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Not only can CyberCSR help a utility become a truly service-oriented organization, it is also a major vehicle for marketing and cross-selling, so adding value to other services in the portfolio.
CyberCSR allows a stronger link between a utility’s overall business processes and their Web based activities than any other available software. For example, it supports consolidated billing – a mature US phenomenon that is still in its infancy in Europe.
CyberCSR supports the customer who chooses to pay a bill on the utility’s Web site. Moreover, it can enable a customer registered with a bill consolidation company to pay the utility bill from that site, using a “thin” client model, the billing information on the consolidator’s site is minimal. For more bill details, the user can click and be sent to the utility’s own site, before returning to continue the bill-viewing and paying activity. In this way, the utility retains control of all that valuable customer data, while reaping the benefits of bill consolidation via the Web.
Currently, Web activity is restricted to the customer who logs on to the utility’s site. In the future more and more business and residential customers will have access, so bills will be delivered via email instead of the brown envelope on the doormat, resulting in massive savings for utilities with such advanced integrated systems.
CRM is crucial
Every business is built on relationships and the desire to further them. DST Innovis’ AWD software is a highly sophisticated CRM engine. Combined with over three decades’ experience of billing at DST Innovis, AWD is uniquely positioned to serve a broad range of industries that support large volumes of customers, each with their associated information.
AWD currently runs on over 70 000 workstations around the world, including companies with many millions of customers. The system is notable for enabling dramatic improvements in efficiency – often over 40 per cent – and empowering Customer Service Representatives to maximize revenue on each customer contact. AWD can present a consistent view of the organization to both internal users and external customers. With core AWD workflow and imaging software, there are over a dozen optional modules that can be combined to create a custom solution.
CRM is the encapsulation of many activities aimed at increasing the acquisition and retention of profitable customers by uniting the capabilities of IT with an organization’s marketing strategies. For example, if a customer calls in with a problem or complaint, they seek acknowledgement of their dilemma and some form of positive remedial action. DST Systems’ AWD will manage the passage of the call and all its associated data through the organization, ensuring, for example, that the contact centre agent knows how long the customer has waited in the IVR chain, and any details of previous contact.
Everything reasonable that can be done to maintain a positive relationship with the customer through having relevant information – from basic individual details to offers and marketing literature – at the immediate disposal of the staff involved is made possible through a combination of AWD and the utility’s agreed strategic approach to customer service.
All the data about a customer is, in conventional systems, held on disparate databases, with each one accessible only via their own front end and authorization codes. AWD’s common front end links seamlessly into the rest of the Affinity portfolio, enabling contact centre agents to access multiple information sources through a single interface tailored to their organization’s strategy and goals.
The technology is regularly upgraded. The API Toolkit, for instance, is augmented continually with new interfaces to enable organizations to access an increasing number of data sources, systems and devices.
Ultimately, CIS can deliver tremendous value to a utility when integrated with a CRM strategy. The software epitomised by the DST Innovis portfolio enables the utility to use information constructively and intelligently, not only to deliver service but to encourage a wider interaction with the customer that will lead to a more profitable relationship.
The future of CRM
Whatever the specific product, utilities face many common challenges, including redesigning billing and customer care. Mike Cock, computer operations manager responsible for UK utility Sutton & East Surrey Water, is guiding the utility into the e-commerce era: “Whether you believe the hype or not, the internet is here to stay. On-line billing presentiment [EBPP] is growing, from three UK utilities offering some form of EBPP in 1999, to over half of UK utilities in 2001.”
Sutton customers can register on-line to receive a PIN by post – to comply with UK Data Protection Act regulations and good security practice – then log on whenever they wish to view their account details, enter a meter reading, request payment changes, and an increasing number of actions that would otherwise demand a phone call or letter. Take-up of the system – based around DST Innovis’ CyberCSR – is in line with current internet services: 1500 customers from a possible 250 000. In the US, which is generally considered a year or more ahead of Europe in the use of the internet, Web-based bill paying stands at around two per cent.
“We have an advanced option that is part of our standard billing package, so even if it didn’t go any further, it would pay for itself,” says Cock. But Sutton is confident that take-up will be significant, if gradual. It encourages customers to try the web service through innovative marketing techniques, such as donating money to local schools – a move which doubled web numbers in a few months.
DST Innovis manages Sutton’s billing under an outsourcing contract and the Web project was the first UK implementation of CyberCSR. While the business case for e-billing could be made on the basis of administrative cost savings alone, Sutton is enthusiastic about exploiting the full potential of internet-based customer service: “Our utility is used to twice-yearly contact customers. The web is a launch-pad for all kinds of regular interaction with many revenue-generating opportunities,” says Cock.
Figure 2. Rick Cluthe: “touch points” between the customer and the service provider are valuable and their power should not be underestimated
The flexibility of CyberCSR’s open architecture is also enabling Sutton to place its web service with the UK’s first consolidated billing company, Clear Money. Internet surfers can pay bills from all kinds of utilities and credit organizations – including Sutton, and click on the hot link for further details of their bill, if necessary. Their details are retained by Sutton, not the consolidator, who offers only the bill amount and the opportunity to pay many bills from a single site.
Feedback is universally positive to date and no-one has returned to paper billing: “UK regulations do not allow us to offer discounts for web payment, so we have to overcome apathy as well as the ‘shock of the new’ that the internet represents to some customers, but we are very pleased with the response so far and expect numbers to continue to rise. Once they’re using the site, they stick with it,” added Cock.