Helping North American Utilities Transform the Way They Do Business

Utilities are facing a host of challenges ranging from environmental concerns, aging infrastructure and systems, to Smart Grid technology and related program decisions. The future utility will be required to find effective solutions to these challenges, while continuing to meet the increasing expectations of newly empowered consumers. This brings an opportunity to create stronger, more profitable relationships with customers, and to do so more cost effectively.

Since our formation in 1996 as the subsidiary of UK-based United Utilities Plc., Vertex Business Services has grown to serve over 70 North American utilities and retail energy clients, who in turn serve over 23 million end-use customers. Our broad portfolio of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Information Technology (IT) solutions enables our clients to more effectively manage operational costs, improve efficiencies, develop front-line employees, and achieve superior customer experience.

Improving Utility Collection Performances

Utilities can greatly benefit from the debt management practices and experience of industries such as banking and retail that have developed a more sophisticated skill set. Benefits can come from adoption of proven methodologies for managing accounts receivable and managing outsourced agency collections business processes, as well as from the use of appropriate software for these processes. There is also benefit to using analytical tools to evaluate the process of collections and optimizing processes based on metrics collected.

Improve your collection rates and lower outstanding accounts receivable through Vertex’s proven collection services. Our rich heritage results in our ability to implement best practices and provide quality reporting strategies, ironclad credit and collection processes, and innovative training programs.

Handling Demand Response and Efficiency In the Call Center

In the next five to 10 years, utilities will be forced to change more than at any time in their previous history. These changes will be profound, widespread and will affect not only utilities themselves, but virtually all parts of our modern electrified culture. One of the most dramatic changes will be in the traditional relationship between utilities and their customers, especially at the residential level. Passive electricity "rate payers" are about to become very active participants in the relationship with their utility.

Turning Information Into Power

Around the world, utilities are under pressure. Citizens demand energy and water that don’t undermine environmental quality. Regulators seek action on smart grids and smart metering initiatives that add intelligence to infrastructure. Customers seek choice and convenience – but without additional costs.

Around the globe, utilities are re-examining every aspect of their business.

Oracle can help. We offer utility experts, mission-critical software applications, a rock-solid operational software suite, and world-leading middleware and technology that can help address these challenges. The result: flexible, innovative solutions that increase efficiency, improve stakeholder satisfaction, futureproof your organization – and turn information into power.

Utilities can begin with one best-of breed solution that addresses a specific pain point. Alternatively, you can implement several pre-integrated applications to ease the development and administration of cross-departmental business processes. Our complete applications and technology footprint can be standardized to focus on accountability and reduce the resources spent on vendor relations.

Oracle Is A Leader In Utilities: 20 of the Top 20 Global Utilities Get Results With Oracle

Oracle provides utilities with the world’s most complete set of software choices. We help you address emerging customer needs, speed delivery of utility-specific services, increase administrative efficiency, and turn business data into business intelligence.

Oracle Utilities offers the world’s most complete suite of end-to-end information technology solutions for the gas, water, and electric utilities that underpin communities around the world. Our revolutionary approach to providing utilities with the applications and expertise they need brings together:

  • Oracle Utilities solutions, utility-specific revenue and operations management applications:
    • Customer Care and Billing
    • Mobile Workforce Management
    • Network Management System
    • Work and Asset Management
    • Meter Data Management (Standard and Enterprise Editions)
    • Load Analysis
    • Load Profiling and Settlement
    • Portfolio Management
    • Quotation Management
    • Business Intelligence
  • Oracle’s ERP, database and infrastructure software:
    • Oracle E-Business Suite and other ERP applications
    • Times Ten for real-time data management
    • Data hubs for customer and product master data management
    • Analytics that provide insight and customer intelligence
    • ContentDB, SpatialDB and RecordsDB for content management
    • Secure Enterprise Search for enterprise-wide search needs
  • Siebel CRM for larger competitive utilities’ call centers, customer order management, specialized contacts and strategic sales:
    • Comprehensive transactional, analytical and engagement CRM capabilities
    • Tailored industry solutions
    • Role-based customer intelligence and pre-built
  • Oracle’s AutoVue Enterprise Visualization Solutions:
    • Make business and technical documents easily accessible by all enterprise users
    • Expedite document reviews with built-in digital annotations and markups
    • Boost the value of your enterprise system with integrated Enterprise Visualization
  • Oracle’s Primavera Solutions:
    • Effectively manage and control the most complex projects and project portfolio
    • Deliver projects across generation, transmission and distribution, and new clean-energy ventures
    • Optimize a diminishing but highly skilled workforce

Stand-alone, each of these products meets utilities’ unique customer and service needs. Together, they enable multi-departmental business processes. The result is an unparalleled set of technologies that address utilities’ most pressing current and emerging issues.

The Vision

Cross-organizational business processes and best practices are key to addressing today’s complex challenges. Oracle Utilities provides the path via which utilities may:

  • Address the "green agenda:"
    • Help reduce pollution
    • Increase efficiency
    • Complete software suite to enable the smart grid
  • Advance customer care with:
    • Real-time 360-degree views of customer information
    • Tools to help customers save time and money
    • Introduce or retire products and services quickly, in response to emerging customer needs
  • Enhance revenue and operations management:
    • Avoid revenue leakage across end-to-end transactions
    • Increase the visibility and auditability of key business processes
    • Manage assets strategically
    • Bill for services and collect revenue cost-effectively
    • Increase field crew and network efficiency
    • Track and improve performance against goals
    • Achieve competitive advantage with a leading-edge infrastructure that helps utilities respond quickly to change
  • Reduce total cost of ownership through access to a single global vendor with:
    • Proven best-in-class utility management solutions
    • Comprehensive, world-class capabilities in applications and technology infrastructure
    • A global 24/7 distribution and support network with 7,000 service personnel
    • Over 14,000 software developers
    • Over 19,000 partners

Strategic Technology For Every Utility

Only Oracle powers the information-driven enterprise by offering a complete, integrated solution for every segment of the utilities industry – from generation and transmission to distribution and retail services. And when you run Oracle applications on Oracle technology, you speed implementation, optimize performance, and maximize ROI.

When it comes to handling innovations like daily or interval meter reading, installing, maintaining, and replacing plant and linear assets, providing accurate bills and supporting your contact center and more, Oracle Utilities is the solution of choice. Utilities succeed with Oracle. Oracle helps electric, gas, water and waste management meet today’s imperatives to do the following:

  • Help customers conserve energy and reduce carbon footprints
  • Keep energy affordable
  • Strengthen and secure communities’ economic foundation

Meeting the Challenges of the Future, Today

Utilities today need a suite of software applications and technology to serve as a robust springboard from which to meet the challenges of the future.

Oracle offers that suite.

Oracle Utilities solutions enable you to meet tomorrow’s customer needs while addressing the varying concerns of financial stakeholders, employees, communities, and governments. We work with you to address emerging issues and changing business conditions. We help you to evolve to take advantage of new technology directions and to incorporate innovation into ongoing activity.

Partnering with Oracle helps you to futureproof your utility.

Enabling Successful Business Outcomes Through Value-Based Client Relationships

Utilities are facing a host of challenges ranging from environmental concerns, aging infrastructure and systems, to Smart Grid technology and related program decisions. The future utility will be required to find effective solutions to these challenges, while continuing to meet the increasing expectations of newly empowered consumers. Cost management in addressing these challenges is important, but delivery of value is what truly balances efficiency with customer satisfaction.

Our Commitment

Vertex clients trust us to deliver on our promises and commitments, and they partner with us to generate new ideas that will secure their competitive advantage, while also delivering stakeholder benefits. Our innovative same-side-of-the-table approach allows us to transform the efficiency and effectiveness of your business operations, enabling you to lower your risk profile and enhance your reputation in the eyes of customers, investors and regulatory bodies. Working as partners, we provide unique insights that will generate actionable ideas and help you achieve new levels of operational excellence.

With a long heritage in the utility industry, Vertex possesses an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the issues and challenges facing utility businesses today. We actively develop insights and innovative ideas that allow us to work with our utility clients to transform their businesses, and we can enhance your future performance in terms of greater efficiencies, higher customer satisfaction, increased revenue and improved profitability.

Achievement of desired business outcomes is best achieved with a strategic, structured approach that leverages continuous improvement throughout. Vertex takes a four-level approach, which starts with asking the right questions. Levels 1 and 2 identify business challenges and the corresponding outcomes your utility hopes to achieve. Need to improve customer satisfaction? If so, is moving from the 2nd to 1st quartile the right target? Pinpointing the key business challenges that are limiting or impeding your success is critical. These may include a need to reduce bad debt, reduce costs, minimize billing errors, or improve CSR productivity. Whatever challenges you face, collaboration with our experts will ensure your utility is on the right track to meet or exceed your targets.

Once the challenges and outcomes have been identified and validated, Vertex partners with clients to develop effective solutions. The solutions implemented in Level 3 consist of unique value propositions that, when combined effectively, achieve the desired business outcome for the business challenge being addressed. Vertex’s proprietary “Value Creation Model” enables us to develop and implement solutions that provide measurable business results and ongoing quality assurance.

Inherent to the success of this model is the Vertex Transition Methodology, which has resulted in 200 successful transitions over a twelve-year period. Due diligence yields a clear understanding of how the business operates. Mobilizing activities lay the foundation for the transition, and a baseline for the transition plan is established. The plans developed during the planning stage are implemented, followed by a stabilization period from the business transfer to when things are fully operational.

Another key element of this model lies in Vertex’s transformation capabilities, and what we refer to as our “6D” transformation methodology. Dream, Define, Design, Develop, Deliver, Drive – our Lean Six Sigma methods guarantee successful deployment of continuous process improvement results. In addition to Lean Six Sigma, the Vertex Transformation Methodology includes change management, people and performance management, and project management.

In Level 4 of the Vertex solution approach, Vertex measures the effectiveness of a solution by determining if it achieved the desired business outcome. We utilize a Balanced Scorecard approach to ensure that the business outcome positively impacts all of the key elements of a client’s business: Customer, Employee, Operational, and Financial. As desired business outcomes evolve, Vertex will remain committed to adapting our solutions in partnership with our clients to meet these changing needs.

Transforming Your Organization

If you’re ready to transform to an outcomes- based business, Vertex has the capability to help. Our service lines include: Consulting and Transformation, IT Applications Services and Products, Debt Management, and Meter-to-Cash Outsourcing.

Our transformation approach blends innovation and business process improvement, focusing on achieving your strategic objectives via our proven expertise and insights. We bring business transformation that secures greater efficiencies, improved effectiveness and enhanced services for your organization. All the while we never forget that our employees represent your brand.

We’ll work collaboratively with you, rapidly implementing services and delivering on continuous improvement to meet your goals. We’ll build on your business needs, sharing ideas and jointly developing options for change – working together to deliver real value.

Empower Your Customers To Reduce Energy Demand

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts a continuing gap between total domestic energy production and consumption through 2030. This delta will not be closed by supply alone; customer behavior changes are needed to reduce total consumption and peak load. Electric and gas utilities face tremendous challenges meeting energy supply and demand needs and will play a pivotal role in determining practical solutions. With the right approach, utilities will deliver on the promise of energy efficiency and demand response.

Energy market projections are highly speculative as the market is characterized by high price volatility and rapid market transformation. Adding to the uncertainty is the voluntary nature of demand response and energy efficiency programs, and the critical importance of customer behavior change. Utilities are spending billions of dollars, making program penetration essential – and customer education paramount. At an end-point cost of up to $300, a five percent penetration is not the answer. Vertex can help mitigate these risks through highly effective management of customer care, CIS integration, pilot programs, and analytics. Vertex’s core “meter-to-cash” capabilities have undergone a major revolution in response to the new world of AMI, energy efficiency, and demand response. A robust set of new services will allow utilities to transform how they do business.

Smart meters put new demands on CIS platforms and traditional business processes – innovative rates, distributed generation, demand response and new customer programs all require creative change. Vertex is currently helping utilities develop and manage customer programs to fully exploit smart meter deployments and provide customer care to customers migrating to time-based rates. We deliver customer management services to drive penetration and designed to meet the unique customer care needs generated by smart meter installations, energy efficiency and demand response programs to empower customers to manage their energy use and reduce consumption, and cost-effective customer care and billing solutions to support smart meters.

Water utilities are not immune to the need for conservation. In the past 30 years, the U.S. population has grown over 50% while the total water use has tripled. On average, Americans use approximately 75 to 80 gallons of water per person per day. Vertex can help water utilities address the unique conservation challenges they face, including customer care and program support, MDMS solutions to organize data for forecasting, code enforcement, business and customer insight, and other services.

Case Study – Hydro One

Hydro One is an Ontario, Canada based utility that is one of the five largest transmission utilities in North America. As the stewards of critical provincial assets, Hydro One works with its industry partners to ensure that electricity can be delivered safely, reliably, and affordably to its customers. Vertex has been providing Meter-to-Cash outsourcing services to Hydro One since 2002.

Applying the Vertex 4-level solutions approach enabled desired business outcomes:

Level 1: Identify Business Challenges

In 2006 Hydro One approached Vertex and indicated that one of their corporate goals was to dramatically improve customer satisfaction as a result of the Hydro One customer satisfaction survey. At that point, Hydro One customer satisfaction scores on agent-handled calls had hovered in the 75-76% range for several years. Up to that time, the relationship with Vertex had focused on significant reductions to cost with no erosion to service offered to customers. Now, Hydro One was looking to Vertex to help lead the drive to improve the customer experience.

Level 2: Identify Desired Outcomes

In 2007 Vertex and Hydro One entered into collaborative discussions to evaluate and analyze the historical customer satisfaction scores, and to work jointly to develop a plan to radically modify the customer experience and improve customer satisfaction. Those discussions led down several paths, and the parties mutually agreed to target the following areas for change:

  • The Vertex/Hydro One Quality program
  • A cultural adjustment that would reflect the change in focus
  • Technology that could help support Hydro One’s goals
  • End-to-end process review

Level 3: Develop & Implement Solution

Vertex has worked closely with Hydro One to help them deliver on their goal of significant improvements to customer satisfaction. Changes were applied to process, call scripts, quality measures and performance scoring at all levels in the organization, including incentive compensation and recognition programs.

Level 4: Measure Solution Results

  • Customer satisfaction scores on agent-handled calls increased from 76% in 2006 to 86% in 2008
  • Quality monitoring program changes yielded a 10% increase in first-call resolution
  • Introduced bi-weekly Process/Quality forums
  • Monthly reviews with the client to reinforce success and progress toward targets

Thinking Smart

For more than 30 years, Newton- Evans Research Company has been studying the initial development and the embryonic and emergent stages of what the world now collectively terms the smart, or intelligent, grid. In so doing, our team has examined the technology behind the smart grid, the adoption and utilization rates of this technology bundle and the related market segments for more than a dozen or so major components of today’s – and tomorrow’s – intelligent grid.

This white paper contains information on eight of these key components of the smart grid: control systems, smart grid applications, substation automation programs, substation IEDs and devices, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and automated meter-reading devices (AMR), protection and control, distribution network automation and telecommunications infrastructure.

Keep in mind that there is a lot more to the smart grid equation than simply installing advanced metering devices and systems. A large AMI program may not even be the correct starting point for hundreds of the world’s utilities. Perhaps it should be a near-term upgrade to control center operations or to electronic device integration of the key substations, or an initial effort to deploy feeder automation or even a complete production and control (P&C) migration to digital relaying technology.

There simply is not a straightforward roadmap to show utilities how to develop a smart grid that is truly in that utility’s unique best interests. Rather, each utility must endeavor to take a step back and evaluate, analyze and plan for its smart grid future based on its (and its various stakeholders’) mission, its role, its financial and human resource limitations and its current investment in modern grid infrastructure and automation systems and equipment.

There are multiple aspects of smart grid development, some of which involve administrative as well as operational components of an electric power utility, and include IT involvement as well as operations and engineering; administrative management of customer information systems (CIS) and geographic information systems (GIS) as well as control center and dispatching operation of distribution and outage management systems (DMS and OMS); substation automation as well as true field automation; third-party services as well as in-house commitment; and of course, smart metering at all levels.

Space Station

I have often compared the evolution of the smart grid to the iterative process of building the international space station: a long-term strategy, a flexible planning environment, responsive changes incorporated into the plan as technology develops and matures, properly phased. What function we might need is really that of a skilled smart grid architect to oversee the increasingly complex duties of an effective systems planning organization within the utility organization.

All of these soon-to-be-interrelated activities need to be viewed in light of the value they add to operational effectiveness and operating efficiencies as well as the effect of their involvement with one another. If the utility has not yet done so, it must strive to adopt a systems-wide approach to problem solving for any one grid-related investment strategy. Decisions made for one aspect of control and automation will have an impact on other components, based on the accumulated 40 years of utility operational insights gained in the digital age.

No utility can today afford to play whack-a-mole with its approach to the intelligent grid and related investments, isolating and solving one problem while inadvertently creating another larger or more costly problem elsewhere because of limited visibility and “quick fix” decision making.

As these smart grid building blocks are put into service, as they become integrated and are made accessible remotely, the overall smart grid necessarily becomes more complex, more communications-centric and more reliant on sensor-based field developments.

In some sense, it reminds one of building the space station. It takes time. The process is iterative. One component follows another, with planning on a system-wide basis. There are no quick solutions. Everything must be very systematically approached from the outset.

Buckets of Spending

We often tackle questions about the buckets of spending for smart grid implementations. This is the trigger for the supply side of the smart grid equation. Suppliers are capable of developing, and will make the required R&D investment in, any aspect of transmission and distribution network product development – if favorable market conditions exist or if market outlooks can be supported with field research. Hundreds of major electric power utilities from around the world have already contributed substantially to our ongoing studies of smart grid components.

In looking at the operational/engineering components of smart grid developments, centering on the physical grid itself (whether a transmission grid, a distribution grid or both), one must include what today comprises P&C, feeder and switch automation, control center-based systems, substation measurement and automation systems, and other significant distribution automation activities.

On the IT and administrative side of smart grid development, one has to include the upgrades that will definitely be required in the near- or mid-term, including CIS, GIS, OMS and wide area communications infrastructure required as the foundation for automatic metering. Based on our internal estimates and those of others, spending for grid automation is pegged for 2008 at or slightly above $1 billion nationwide and will approach $3.5 billion globally. When (if) we add in annual spending for CIS, GIS, meter data management and communications infrastructure developments, several additional billions of dollars become part of the overall smart grid pie.

In a new question included in the 2008 Newton-Evans survey of control center managers, these officials were asked to check the two most important components of near-term (2008-2010) work on the intelligent grid. A total of 136 North American utilities and nearly 100 international utilities provided their comments by indicating their two most important efforts during the planning horizon.

On a summary basis, AMI led in mentions from 48 percent of the group. EMS/ SCADA investments in upgrades, new applications, interfaces et al was next, mentioned by 42 percent of the group. Distribution automation was cited by 35 percent as well.

Spending Outlook

The financial environment and economic outlook do not bode well for many segments of the national and global economies. One question we have continuously been asked well into this year is whether the electric power industry will suffer the fate of other industries and significantly scale back planned spending on T&D automation because of possible revenue erosion given the slowdown and fallout from this year’s difficult industrial and commercial environments.

Let’s first take a summary look at each of the five major components of T&D automation because these all are part and parcel of the operations/engineering view of the smart grid of the future.

Control Systems Outlook: Driven by SCADA-like systems and including energy management systems and distribution management software, this segment of the market is hovering around the $500 million mark on a global scale – excluding the values of turn-key control center projects (engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) of new control center facilities and communications infrastructure). We see neither growth nor erosion in this market for the near-term, with some up-tick in spending for new applications software and better visualization tools to compensate for the “aging” of installed systems. While not a control center-based system, outage management is a closely aligned technology development, and will continue to take hold in the global market. Sales of OMS software and platforms are already approaching the $100 million mark led by the likes of Oracle Utilities, Intergraph and MilSoft.

Substation Automation and Integration Programs: The market for substation IEDs, for new communications implementations and for integration efforts has grown to nearly $500 million. Multiyear programs aimed at upgrading, integrating and automating the existing global base of about a quarter million or so transmission and primary distribution substations have been underway for some time. Some programs have been launched in 2008 that will continue into 2011. We see a continuation of the growth in spending for critical substation A&I programs, albeit 2009 will likely see the slowest rate of growth in several years (less than 3 percent) if the current economic malaise holds up through the year. Continuing emphasis will be on HV transmission substations as the first priority for upgrades and addition of more intelligent electronic devices.

AMI/AMR: This is the lynchpin for the smart grid in the eyes of many industry observers, utility officials and perhaps most importantly, regulators at the state and federal levels of the U.S., Canada, Australia and throughout Western Europe. With nearly 1.5 billion electricity meters installed around the world, and about 93 percent being electro-mechanical, interest in smart metering can also be found in dozens of other countries, including Indonesia, Russia, Honduras, Malaysia, Australia, and Thailand. Another form of smart meters, the prepayment meter, is taking hold in some of the developing nations of the world. The combined resources of Itron, coupled with its Actaris acquisition, make this U.S. firm the global share leader in sales and installations of AMI and AMR systems and meters.

Protection and Control: The global market for protective relays, the foundation for P&C has climbed well above $1.5 billion. Will 2009 see a drop in spending for protective relays? Not likely, as these devices continue to expand in capabilities, and undertake additional functions (sequence of event recording, fault recording and analysis, and even acting as a remote terminal unit). To the surprise of many, there is still a substantial amount (perhaps as much as $125 million) being spent annually for electro-mechanical relays nearly 20 years into the digital relay era. The North American leader in protective relay sales to utilities is SEL, while GE Multilin continues to hold a leading share in industrial markets.

Distribution Automation: Today, when we discuss distribution automation, the topic can encompass any and all aspects of a distribution network automation scheme, from the control center-based SCADA and distribution management system on out to the substation, where RTUs, PLCs, power meters, digital relays, bay controllers and a myriad of communicating devices now help operate, monitor and control power flow and measurement in the medium voltage ranges.

Nonetheless, it is beyond the substation fence, reaching further down into the primary and secondary network, where we find reclosers, capacitors, pole top RTUs, automated overhead switches, automated feeders, line reclosers and associated smart controls. These are the new smart devices that comprise the basic building blocks for distribution automation. The objective will be achieved with the ability to detect and isolate faults at the feeder level, and enable ever faster service restoration. With spending approaching $1 billion worldwide, DA implementations will continue to expand over the coming decade, nearing $2.6 billion in annual spending by 2018.

Summary

The T&D automation market and the smart grid market will not go away this year, nor will it shrink. When telecommunications infrastructure developments are included, about $5 billion will have been spent in 2008 for global T&D automation programs. When AMI programs are adding into the mix, the total exceeds $7 billion. T&D automation spending growth will likely be subdued, perhaps into 2010. However, the overall market for T&D automation is likely to be propped up to remain at or near current levels of spending for 2009 and into 2010, benefiting from the continued regulatory-driven momentum for AMI/ AMR, renewable portfolio standards and demand response initiatives. By 2011, we should once again see healthier capital expenditure budgets, prompting overall T&D automation spending to reach about $6 billion annually. Over the 2008-2018 periods, we anticipate more than $75 billion in cumulative smart grid expenditures.

Expenditure Outlook

Newton-Evans staff has examined the current outlook for smart grid-related expenditures and has made a serious attempt to avoid double counting potential revenues from all of the components of information systems spending and the emerging smart grid sector of utility investment.

While the enterprise-wide IT portions (blue and red segments) of Figure 1 include all major components of IT (hardware, software, services and staffing), the “pure” smart grid components tend to be primarily in hardware, in our view. Significant overlap with both administrative and operational IT supporting infrastructure is a vital component for all smart grid programs underway at this time.

Between “traditional IT” and the evolving smart grid components, nearly $25 billion will likely be spent this year by the world’s electric utilities. Nearly one-third of all 2009 information technology investments will be “smart grid” related.

By 2013, the total value of the various pie segments is expected to increase substantially, with “smart grid” spending possibly exceeding $12 billion. While this amount is generally understood to be conservative, and somewhat lower than smart grid spending totals forecasted by other firms, we will stand by our forecasts, based on 31 years of research history with electric power industry automation and IT topics.

Some industry sources may include the total value of T&D capital spending in their smart grid outlook.

But that portion of the market is already approaching $100 billion globally, and will likely top $120 billion by 2013. Much of that market would go on whether or not a smart grid is involved. Clearly, all new procurements of infrastructure equipment will be made with an eye to including as much smart content as is available from the manufacturers and integrators.

What we are limiting our definition to is edge investment, the components of the 21st century digital transport and delivery systems being added on or incorporated into the building blocks (power transformers lines, switchgear, etc.) of electric power transmission and delivery.

Customer Relationships and the Economy

A little over a year ago, the challenges facing the global energy and utilities market were driving a significant wedge between utilities and their customers. In Western European markets, price increases across gas, electricity and water, combined with increased corporate earnings, left many utilities in the uncomfortable position of being seen as profiteering from customers unable to change suppliers for significant benefit.

Headline-makers had a field day, with gross simplification of the many utilities’ business models. They made claims about “obscene profits,” while citing the “long-suffering” consumer position [1]. Now, more than a year later, gas and electricity prices are falling, but the severity and pace of the wider economic downturn has given no time for utilities to re-position themselves with customers. Brand and relationship-enhancing programs such as smart metering and energy efficiency are still largely in their infancy.

The evolving relationship with the customer base, where customer expectations are resulting in a more participatory, multi-channel engagement, comes at a time when the evolution of smart networks and metering solutions are on the cusp of driving down cost to serve and improving service levels and options. Significant benefits accrue from consumption measurement and management capabilities. Benefits also result from the opportunity to transform the consumer relationship by pushing into new areas such as home device management, more personalised tariffs and easier debt arrangements. The position for utilities, therefore, should be favourable – finally being seen as working on a more participatory relationship with their customers.

For consumers, the consequences of recession include an increased pressure on household spending. In competitive markets, there could be increased churn as the ever-changing “best-buys” attract customers. For utilities, increased churn rates are obviously bad news – the cost of new customer acquisition often wipes out profit associated with consumption by that customer for months, even years. Moreover, while utilities are working on marketing the best deals to acquire and retain customers – and on piloting smart technologies in the home – consumers’ familiarity with new technologies and their allegiance to some brands presents an opportunity for third parties to gain greater hold on the customer relationship.

Take the case of smart metering, for example, where many utilities are engaging upon pilot and larger rollouts. This is an area of innovation that should deliver benefits to both consumers and utilities. The assured business benefits to the utility companies come not only from applying the technology to lower operational costs, but also from enhancing their brand and customer service reputation. To the customer, smart technologies offer consumption details in an understandable form and give the promise of accurate commodity billing.

The risk is that the potentially lucrative relationship between customer and utility is currently damaged to a point where telecommunications providers, retailers or technology companies could step in with attractive, multi-service offerings. That could relegate the utility to simple supply activities, unable to gain a significant hold in home engagement. Certainly, utilities will still witness savings from automated meter reading and improved billing accuracy, but this commoditisation path for the utility company will limit profitable growth and push them further away from customers. Combine this with increased churn, and suddenly the benefits of smart technology deployment could be wiped out for the utility company.

This is not just an issue associated with smart technologies – the entire customer relationship journey with a utility is under threat from non-utility entrants (See Figure 1). Consider the area of consumer marketing and sign-up. Third parties that simply market other companies’ services have already taken a position in this part of the customer journey by providing Internet sites that allow tariff comparison and online switching of suppliers. The brand awareness of the comparison sites has already begun to gain the trust of the customer and the utility brand becomes more remote – the start of an uneasy decline. Additionally, in receiving fees for bringing customers to utilities, these companies thrive on churn – driving up utility cost and driving an even greater gap into the consumer-utility relationship.

Further credence to the challenges comes in the areas around presentation of information to customers. Any utility information channel will demand attention to “stickiness” when using technology such as the Internet for displaying utility bills and consumption data. This information has to be pushed to consumers in an attractive, understandable, and above all, personal format. Does the traditional utility information quality and flow have enough appeal for the average consumer to repeatedly view over time? It could be argued that third parties have the ability to blend in more diverse information to improve stickiness on, for example, handheld devices that give the consumer other benefits such as telephony, traffic and weather updates.

Customer Experience Risks

Traditionally, utilities are seen as relatively “recession proof,” operating on longer- term cycles than financial and retail markets. It is this long-term view that, coupled with an already disjointed customer relationship, poses a significant risk to utilities in the next two years. Customers will react in the competitive markets to the feeling of being “cornered” in an environment where few utilities truly differentiate themselves on customer service, product, tariff or brand. Research suggests that consumers are driving change in the relationship with their utilities, and it is this change that opens up opportunity for others (“Plugging in the Consumer”, IBM Institute for Business Value, 2007).

Reaction may not come soon; rarely do new entrants come into a recessionary market. But the potential for non-utilities to begin exploiting the gap between customer and utility should be cause for concern.

The parallel of these changes and risks was seen in the telco landline market over the last two decades. Several of the big, former-monopoly landline carriers are now perceived as commodity bandwidth providers, with declining core customer numbers and often-difficult regulatory challenges. Newer, more agile companies have stepped into the role of “owning” the consumer relationship and are tailoring the commodities into appealing packages. The underlying services may still come from the former-monopoly, but the customer relationship is now skewing toward the new entrant.

There are strategies that can be proactively deployed, individually or in combination, that improve the resilience of a utility through a recession, and that indeed redraw the client relationship to the point where profitability can increase without attracting the appearance of excess. These strategies resist the potential demise of the utilities to commodity providers, allowing for a value-add future based on their pervasive presence in the home.

The five steps outlined below revolve around the need to focus on the fundamentals, namely customer relationships and cash:

  1. Know Your Customer. Like most companies, utilities can benefit greatly by knowing more about customers. By engaging upon a strategy of ongoing information collection, customer segmentation and profitability analysis, plans can be put in place to detect and react to customer attrition risks. This includes early identification of changes to a customer’s circumstances, such as the ability to settle debt, allowing the utility to work proactively with the customer to address the issue. An active relationship style will show consumers that utilities care and understand, increasing brand loyalty, and hence, lowering the cost to serve.
  2. Free Up Locked Cash. Although recession-resistant in the short-term, identifying organic sources of improved cash flow can be an important source of funding for utilities that need to invest in improving customer relationships and capabilities. Industry benchmarks indicate that most utilities have opportunities to plug leaks in their working capital processes, with the potential of tapping into a significant and accessible source of free cash flow. For example, consider the traditionally neglected, under-invested area of consumer debt. With the economic downturn, debt levels are likely to rise, and, if unchecked, costs and cash flow will be adversely impacted.

    Focus areas for addressing the issue and freeing up locked cash include:

    • Using process management techniques such as activity-based management or Lean Six Sigma to identify opportunities for performance improvement across the billing, collections and credit-management processes;
    • Focusing on developing the skills and operational structures required to better integrate the meter to cash functions; and
    • Optimizing the use of utility-specific debt tools that work with the core systems.

Additionally, gaining insights through precision analytics to better manage debt functions – similar to best practices in banking and telecommunications – needs to be accelerated.

  1. Focus on the Future. Cost cutting is inevitable by many companies in this economic environment. It is important to understand the medium-to-long-term impact of any cuts on the customer relationship to determine if they could hurt profitability by increasing churn and related cost-to-serve metrics. Thus, utilities must achieve a clear understanding of their baseline performance, and have a predictive decision-making capability that delivers accurate, real-time insights so they can be confident that any actions taken will yield the best results.
  2. Innovate. Utilities traditionally work on longer investment cycles than many other businesses. When compared to consumer-facing industries, that can result in consumer perception that they are lacking innovation. Many consumers readily accept new offerings from retailers, telcos and technology firms, and the promise of a smart home will clearly be of strong commercial interest to these individuals. That’s why utilities must act now to show how they are changing, innovating for the future and putting control into the hands of the consumer. Smart metering programs will help the utilities reposition themselves as innovators. The key will be to use technology in a manner that bonds the customer better with the utility.
  3. Agility is King. Longer investment cycles in the utility sector, combined with the massive scale of operations and investment, often restrict a utilities’ ability to be agile in their business models. The long-term future of many utilities will depend upon being able to react to new consumer, technology and regulatory demands within short timescales. Innovation is only innovative for a short time – businesses need to be ready to embrace and exploit innovation with new business models.

Take Action Now

Many will argue that the current utility programs of change, such as core system replacement, smart metering and improving customer offerings, will be enough to sustain and even enhance the customer relationship. The real benefit, however, will be from building upon the change, moving into new products, delivering personalized services and tariffs, and demonstrating an understanding of individual consumer needs.

Still, utilities may struggle to capture discretionary spending from customers ahead of telcos, retailers, financial firms and others. Simply put, action needs to be taken now to prevent the loss of long-term customer relationships. For utilities, doing more of the same in this dynamic and changing market may simply not be good enough!

References:

  1. Multiple references, especially in the British press, including this one from Energy Saving Trust: http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Resources/Daily-news/Gas-and-Electricity/Probe-demanded-into-energy-rip-off/(energysavingtrust)/20792

Be a People Person

I have to admit it. Despite all the exciting new technologies out there, I am finding myself to be a people person when it comes to building smarter grids and more intelligent utilities. Granted, technology is rapidly developing and the utility industry is finding itself in the middle of more and more automation. However, people – from linemen to consumers – will remain critical components for delivering information-enabled energy.

In the many conversations I have with utilities and other industry thought leaders, we often start out talking about smart technology, but eventually our chats settle on people. People can ultimately make or break even the most promising technologies – from personnel and consumers adopting and using the technology to executives driving technology investments. So, in a world buzzing with new technologies, it is important to reacquaint ourselves with people. This article traces some of my conversations about what an intelligent utility is, how people fit in – both on the consumer and utility personnel side – and what the utility industry can do to better involve people. As is my usual style, I will serve up these critical subjects with a side of humor and perspectives outside the utility industry. So be prepared to learn more about yoga, Nashville, crystal balls and the telecom industry, too.

What Is An Intelligent Utility ?

Before understanding the importance of people, let’s take a moment to understand where people fit into smart grids and intelligent utilities. Utilities are no longer exempt from change. From economic stimulus plans to carbon controls, to the impending electric vehicle flood, we must face the fact that the utility industry will undergo significant changes in the coming years, months and even minutes. Now, it is not so much a question of what changes will happen, but how – and how well – will the utility industry adapt to these changes?

A frequent answer to this question has been a “smart grid,” but most smart grid discussions inevitably lead to these questions:

  • How do we get to a smart grid?
  • When do we know when we are there?
  • What is a smart grid anyway?

These are not easy questions. Many groups define the smart grid, but how can you tell when a utility has one? Better understanding this challenge requires an unusual, but useful comparison: Nashville and Nirodha – a state of mind in yoga. Let’s say you are traveling to Nashville. You would see landmarks that you could only find in Nashville, such as the Grand Ole Opry, B.B. King’s Blues Club and the Bell- South Tower. Smart grid landmarks, however, are harder to come by. Utilities can install smart meters and other smart sensors on their grid, but having these technologies does not necessarily mean they have arrived at a smart grid. To add to the confusion, other smart grid components, such as demand response, distribution automation and more advanced metering, have already been around for years.

Although such technologies can support a smarter grid, the smart grid is more than just acquiring certain technology landmarks. So, although it is a nice place, you shouldn’t just think Nashville when you think smart grid. Think Nirodha. For those of you who aren’t yoga enthusiasts, Nirodha is a state of mind in yoga in which you become more focused and aware of an object. In the case of a utility, the object is primarily the transmission and distribution network. As a utility becomes more aware and ultimately more knowledgeable about its network, it can make better decisions about its operation.

Furthermore, as a company builds more knowledge about its grid, it develops not only a smarter grid, but also a more intelligent utility. An intelligent utility overlays information on energy that goes beyond the transmission and distribution network all the way from generation to end users, maximizing its reliability, affordability and sustainability. Essentially, utilities are delivering information-enabled energy. And technology is just one piece for delivering this sort of energy. Here is a quick run-down of the key components in an intelligent utility:

  • Process & technology: Utility objectives and their impact on business process change and smart technology deployment;
  • Economic models: The challenges and opportunities of new paradigms. So this is not just the changes involved with upgrading a technology – like a customer information or geographic information system – but the changes from initiatives like electrifying transportation and microgrids that could radically alter utility companies and the roles of generators and consumers;
  • Finance: Investment trends associated with smart technologies;
  • Public policy: The impact of politics on energy – including efforts by regulators and legislators. These groups ultimately set up the framework that determines whether and how intelligent initiatives move forward; and
  • People: The knowledge, skills and abilities required for both the workforce and consumers in an information-enabled environment.

Involving Workforce

The rest of this article will take a little bit closer look at the last component – people. As we move toward information-enabled energy, the utility workforce will undergo some significant changes – from new job titles, to new knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs), to new people joining utility companies from other industries.

Ryan Cook, vice president of the employment services division at Energy Central, has pointed out that “In today’s utilities, employee KSAs are based primarily on providing electrical power as a product. These KSAs support the rules-based, process-oriented, functionally structured, and cost-focused business needs of today’s utility. In the future, however, there will be a massive paradigm shift from providing just a product to providing customers with customizable services and solutions for their unique energy needs. The result will be a shift toward KSAs that support a more agile, innovative, collaborative, cross-functional, service-oriented utility of the future. Employees will need to deal with constantly evolving technology.”

So, digitizing the grid will change personnel needs. We know that much, but the big unknown is how exactly will those needs change? And where is a good crystal ball when you need one? Since my snow globe wasn’t working, I thought about other industries that have gone through a digital revolution, which brought me to the telecom and cable industry. I learned much from Alan Babcock, president of Broadband Training Associates. As this industry digitized its grid over the last 13 years and began to focus more on services as opposed to products, it saw significant workforce changes – touching everyone from field crews, to executives, to marketing folks – that could happen to the utility industry as well.

Out In the Field

Before digitizing the telecom and cable industry, many field crews were still pencil and paper, and some still are today. But digitization changes weren’t just about figuring out how to use a truck-mounted laptop. The workforce has a whole new job to do today. In particular, they now have to troubleshoot new problems on multiple services in the network and become experts at devices on an end user’s premise.

Before digitization, field crews dealt with one service – like video in the cable industry – but now they have to balance multiple services in the same network, including voice, data and video. The decisions you make for one service will ultimately impact the others. So, with multiple services, it changes how you do regular maintenance, how you troubleshoot networks, and how you take the network down to make repairs. On top of that, technicians may not be able to take down certain parts of the network because of service level agreements with customers.

Besides dealing with multiple services, field crews have to better understand the devices that extend into customer premises – including modems for Internet or set-top boxes for cable. It can be embarrassing for a telecom or cable company when the consumer knows more about consumer devices than the technician.

Back In the Office

Digitizing the network not only changed KSAs for field crews, but has changed things in the back office of telecom and cable companies as well. These changes occurred in the areas of marketing, customer service, planning and IT.

  • Marketing to customers: Digitization provides cable and telecom companies with increased visibility into the customer premises. This is not only helpful with determining whether customers have service, but also understanding their entertainment preferences. These companies now better understand what entertainment you watch and when you watch it. Ultimately, they have a lot of information at their disposal to be able to better market to you. Telecom companies, however, weren’t traditionally in the entertainment industry, so better marketing to consumers required a new group of employees from outside telecom.
  • Customer service: Customer service has changed in many ways with the digitization of the telecom and cable industry. With a smarter grid, the utility industry often focuses on benefits that it will bring to the customer representatives in terms of access to more information, but there are other benefits to consider as well. An interesting twist in the telecom and cable industry is that as the network gets more complex, a customer service agent’s job gets somewhat simpler. Essentially, customer service representatives have to recall fewer technical details about the network than they did before. It is not as important that they understand how the networks function because they have better visibility into the premise and have more intelligent systems to walk them through trouble-shooting problems.
  • Capital and strategic planning: Digitization has changed the planning time horizon and knowledge requirements for telecom and cable executives. They must factor in the dizzying technology advancements in the industry; think about the rapid movement from 2G to 3G to 4G networks and beyond. The five-year plan now has to be the three-year plan. From a planning standpoint, they also need to better understand the networks in order to figure out how to best utilize and benefit from services that are enabled by those networks.
  • Designing and maintaining IT systems: Aside from learning how to design and maintain new technologies and systems, the technology personnel in telecom and the cable industry have learned some important lessons as they digitize the networks. The first is to more carefully consider the usefulness of new technologies. If a new technology comes along, it doesn’t mean that it has to be used. If a new technology does make sense to use, technology personnel need to consider the human aspects involved with making that change, including change management and making sure the technology is ready when people actually begin using it.

Involving Customers

Not only will the intelligent utility impact its own personnel, but it will impact consumers as well. In particular, utilities will have to help consumers to understand the value of changes and get them to participate in intelligent initiatives.

As I am sure many of you have realized from conversations with friends and family, many people do not understand smart grid benefits or even how the grid really works. Although more people are starting to realize the value, a key challenge is how to get consumers to grasp these concepts and support a smarter grid and more intelligent utility. Utilities have to figure out how to make these things real for people – and are finding many ways to do that. As one utility executive pointed out, “A technology center served to convince our community stakeholders and our PUC that this appears to be a worthwhile journey. The awareness to the consumer was a tremendous value. They were able to start thinking of the value of what we’re trying to build rather than what we’re trying to build.”

Many intelligent initiatives, from demand response to real-time pricing, focus on the end user and require some level of consumer effort. Consumer participation is key for success, but utilities are finding it challenging to get participation. Solutions range from more automation in controlling household appliances and HVAC systems to competition between neighbors regarding energy consumption, but there is still much work to be done in this area, depending on consumer demographics.

Be A People Person

It is easy to get caught up in the technology hype, but as the examples above demonstrate, it is important to keep people in the equation when looking at smart initiatives. People play a key role in determining their success or failure. By preparing for the people factor and considering them in smart initiatives, utilities can better ensure the adoption and success of new technologies and processes.

The Utility of the Future

The utility industry is in transition. Changing customer needs and expectations are redefining how utilities understand, plan and execute superior customer experiences. In addition, new technologies are enabling new ways to interact with customers.

What will the utility of the future look like? How will customers view their increasing dependency on energy in light of rising energy bills and a sense of urgency to conserve? Do utilities need to start thinking about customers differently? Given the shift in consumer attitudes, along with the rapid advancement of new technologies, what will the industry look like in three, five or even 10 years? While we don’t have a crystal ball to provide all of the answers, IBM has invested in research teams and conducted global surveys to shed light on what the future may hold.

MAJOR CHANGES UNDERWAY

Through interviews with more than 1,000 business and public sector leaders worldwide, the IBM Global CEO Study 200 provides new and compelling perspectives on the strategic issues that are facing organizations of all sizes. Our study finds that 3 percent of CEOs see substantial change coming in the next three years. For utilities, the most dramatic change will be a greater level of customer involvement. Across all industries, CEOs will be increasing their investment in today’s more informed and collaboration-focused customers. As younger consumers begin their relationships with utilities, they bring with them expectations of a digital, mobile and collaborative customer service experience. Most age segments – even boomers – will begin demanding these new multichannel experiences at times that are convenient for them. The utility of the future will have a deep collaborative relationship with the customer and offer innovations that make both its customers and its business more successful.

THE UTILITY BUSINESS MODEL OF THE FUTURE

In the past, utility companies had very limited interaction with customers beyond opening new accounts and billing for services. Consumers took a passive view of all utility activity, only raising their voices when their lights went out. The future shows a much more intense level of customer involvement. Successful companies will continuously differentiate themselves by delivering value with revenue-generating services. The utility of the future will understand the types of capabilities and services that customers will want and can identify and carefully define the gaps in current processes and systems that must be filled to meet these needs.

THE CUSTOMER-FOCUSED UTILITY

Getting perspectives from CEOs and other executives represents only one step toward understanding the utility of the future. IBM also wanted to know what utility customers were thinking. IBM surveyed 1,900 consumers from six countries and included residential households along with small commercial customers. Based on the insights from this survey, we anticipate a steady progression toward a Participatory Network, a technology ecosystem comprising a wide variety of intelligent network-connected devices, distributed generation and consumer energy management tools.

Although the precise time frame for reaching this end state is unknown, our research suggests a few major milestones. Within five years, the percentage of the world’s electric utilities that will be generating at least 10 percent of their power from renewable sources will double. In that same time frame, we believe sufficient supplier choice will allow meaningful consumer switching to emerge in most major competitive markets. We also expect utility demand management initiatives to expand dramatically and electric power generation by consumers to make tremendous inroads within 10 years.

The utility industry is fast approaching a tipping point beyond which consumers can, and increasingly will, demand equal footing with their providers. As consumer passivity gives way to active participation, utilities will have significant opportunities to differentiate themselves and help redefine the industry. Those utilities that are fully prepared to share responsibility with their customers and help them meet their specific energy goals will have a significant competitive advantage and lead the way toward the utility of the future.

INNOVATING FOR THE FUTURE

The utility industry’s future lies in a more participatory structure, where consumers can choose to be actively engaged, and information is abundant and free-fl owing. To thrive in this environment, utilities must be prepared to harness real-time usage information, use it to gain insights into a much more complex consumer base and match products and services to each customer group. Advances in sensor, switching and communications technologies are enabling the next-generation utility. The resulting Intelligent Utility Network will provide a new world of grid monitoring and control and increased options for utility customers.

IBM has proven results in delivering Intelligent Utility Network infrastructures that provide superior reliability and end-to-end network data in near real time. We bring to the table the integration skills, leading-edge technology and partner ecosystem required to support every stage of an Intelligent Utility Network initiative.

As a result of extensive engagements around the world, we have gained deep experience and understand the business processes and technical architecture required for an effective Intelligent Utility Network implementation. We bring together the relevant tools, methodologies, resources and people experienced in the Energy and Utilities industry.

WHY IBM?

IBM delivers innovation that matters for our clients. As a global enterprise, we value innovation that matters for our company and for the world. IBM’s corporate citizenship reflects both our brand and our values by addressing some of society’s most complex problems with game-changing business and technology innovation.

WHY WE ARE UNIQUELY QUALIFIED

The following represent just some of the reasons IBM is uniquely qualified to serve the utility industry:

We Know the Energy and Utilities Business

We help clients define their core competitive advantages. And we do this better than anyone else because we bring deep industry and functional expertise, global experience, high-powered research and a unique understanding of how utilities succeed when they fully leverage technology to their advantage. We bring the following unmatched assets:

  • 70,000 business and industry consultants;
  • On-demand innovation services;
  • Component business modeling;
  • Business Transformation Outsourcing
  • Center for Business Optimization; and
  • Institute for Business Value.

We Know Integration and Transformation

IBM can help energy and utility clients realize the full value of innovation by integrating technology into the fabric of their business, creating the competitive advantage that’s right for them. We offer:

  • Business Performance Transformation Services;
  • Engineering and Technology Services;
  • Application Innovation Services;
  • Custom Logic Capability; and
  • Leadership in Open Standards.

We Know Technology

We are the technology leader. Even more importantly, we know how to deploy all of our technology products and services to deliver the flexible IT infrastructure required to transform businesses and take advantage of every dimension of innovation. We can deploy:

  • 170,000 technology experts;
  • On-demand portfolio/capabilities;
  • Service-oriented architectures and Web services;
  • Modular, scalable and secure computing environments based on open standards;
  • Linux solutions;
  • Middle-ware industry solutions; and
  • Infrastructure management

IBM and the environment

IBM is committed to environmental leadership in all of its business activities, from its operations to the design of its products and use of its technology.

Bill Pay and Presentment Solutions for Utility Companies

Recognizing that not all customers view and pay bills in the same way, Check- Free helps you deliver a complete range of billing and payment options – from the traditional methods of receiving and paying bills by mail, in person and over the phone to complete paperless online billing and payment using either a bank or your website. CheckFree offers solutions that help you meet market demands.

Whether you need to improve a single solution or your entire offering, CheckFree can offer experience and expertise in the following payment channels:

  • By Mail. Some people still choose to receive paper bills and write checks. CheckFree can help turn these paper checks into ACH electronic debits, speeding payment collections.
  • In Person. Give your customers in-person payment convenience and choice to use cash, checks, money orders or merchant-issued certificates.
  • By Phone. Enable your customers to pay a bill anywhere they have access to a phone, all day, every day. With the recent acquisition of CheckFree by Fiserv, you can look for Fiserv’s industry-leading BillMatrix platform to be integrated into our suite of offerings.
  • Online. Deliver bill paying ease and convenience through CheckFree’s full range of electronic billing and payment (EBP) solutions at your site and beyond your site.
  • Emergency Payments. Offer a fee-based option for last-minute online payments and eliminate expenses due to delinquent payments.
  • Electronic Remittance. Provide quicker access to payment funds while reducing the cost of processing paper checks.

CUSTOMER INTERACTION OPTIMIZATION

CheckFree solutions enable you to optimize each customer interaction by offering multiple payment channel options that focus on security, reliability, functionality and convenience. Each interaction with the consumer represents an ideal opportunity to enhance the customer experience and build loyal customers.

Our Customer Interaction Optimization solutions make interactions a win/win for both you and your customers. You deliver the payment channels they seek while maintaining the ability to guide them to the most profitable channel for your organization. The ultimate business objective is to steer customers to the lower cost-to-serve billing and payment option: the online channel.

CheckFree understands your company’s strategic need to direct consumers to the optimal online channel to enhance revenue growth through reductions in operating costs. By investing in substantial consumer behavior, segmentation and marketing research, CheckFree can assist with creating marketing campaigns focused on promoting your online channel. Every bill received, payment made or visit to your website can be utilized to strategically drive adoption of online bill pay, e-bills and paper shut-off.

For more than 25 years, CheckFree has been a leading provider of electronic billing and payment services. We process more than one billion electronic payments each year. With CheckFree’s Customer Interaction Optimization solutions, you can enhance your payment offerings while improving your bottom line.

Developing a Customer Value Transformation Road Map

Historically, utility customers have had limited interactions with their electric or gas utilities, except to start or stop service, report outages, and pay bills or resolve billing questions. This situation is changing as the result of factors that include rising energy prices, increasing concerns about the environment and trends toward more customer interaction and control among other service providers – such as cell phone companies. Over the next five to 10 years, we expect utility customers to continue seeking improvements in three key areas:

  • Increased communication with their utility company, through a greater variety of media;
  • Improved understanding of and control over their own energy use; and
  • More accurate and timely information on outage events and service restoration.

Moreover, as the generations that have grown up with cell phones, the Internet, MP3 players and other digital devices move into adulthood, they will expect utilities to keep pace with their own technological sophistication. These new customers will assume that they can customize the nature of their communications with both friends and businesses. Utilities that can provide these capabilities will unlock new sources of revenue and be better able to retain customers when faced with competition.

The intelligent utility network (IUN) will be a key enabler of these new customer capabilities and services. But not all customers will want all of the new capabilities, so utilities need to understand and carefully analyze the value of each among various customer segments. This will require utilities to prepare sound business cases and prioritize their plans for meeting future customer needs.

One of the first initiatives that utilities launching an IUN program should undertake is the development of a “customer value transformation road map.” The road map approach allows utilities to establish the types of capabilities and services that customers will want, to identify and define the gaps in current processes and systems that must be overcome to meet these needs, and to develop plans to close those gaps.

TRANSFORMATION ROAD MAP DEVELOPMENT APPROACH

Our approach for developing the customer value transformation road map includes four tasks, as depicted in Figure 1.

Task 1: Customer Requirements

The primary challenge facing utilities in defining customer requirements is the need to anticipate their desires and preferences at least five to 10 years into the future. Developing this predictive vision can be difficult for managers because they’re often “locked into” their current views of customers, and their expectations are based largely on historical experience. To overcome this, utilities can learn from other industries that are already traveling this path.

The telecommunications providers, as one example, have made substantial progress in meeting evolving customer needs over the last decade. While more changes lie ahead for telecommunications, the industry has significantly enhanced the customer experience, created differentiated capabilities for various customer segments and succeeded in developing many of these capabilities into profit-generating services. This progress can serve as both an inspiration and a guide as utilities start down a similar path.

The first step in defining future customer requirements is to segment the customer base into the various customer groups that are likely to have different needs. Although these segments will likely vary for each utility, we believe that the following seven major customer segments serve as a useful starting point for this work:

  • Residential – tech savvy. These are customers who want many different electronic communication pathways but don’t necessarily want to develop a detailed understanding of the trends and patterns in their energy usage.
  • Residential – low tech. These customers prefer traditional, less high tech ways of communicating, but may want to perform analysis of their usage.
  • Residential – low income. These are customers who want to understand what’s driving their energy expenditures and how to reduce their bills; many of these customers are also tech savvy.
  • Special needs. These customers, often elderly, may live on fixed incomes and are accustomed to careful planning, and want no surprises in their interactions with providers of utility services. They frequently need help from others to manage their daily activities.
  • Small business. These commercial customers are typically very cost-conscious and highly adaptable and seek creative but relatively simple solutions to their energy management challenges.
  • Large commercial. These are customers who are cost-conscious and capable of investing substantial time and money in order to analyze and reduce their energy use in sophisticated ways.
  • Industrial. These very large customers are sophisticated, cost-conscious and increasingly focused on environmental issues.

The next step in defining future customer requirements is to understand the points in the utility value chain at which customers will interact with their utility. Based on recent trends for both utilities and other industries, the following “touch point” areas are a good starting point:

  • Reliability and restoration;
  • Billing;
  • Customer service;
  • Energy information and control; and
  • Environment.

Not all of these requirements will be important to all customer segments. It is essential to establish the most important requirements for each segment and each touch point. Figure 2 provides one example of a preliminary assessment of the relative importance of selected customer requirements for the reliability and restoration category, across the seven specified customer segments. Each customer need is assigned a high (H), medium (M) or low (L) rank.

Once this preliminary assessment is completed, utilities should consider conducting several workshops with participants from various functional departments. The goal of these workshops is to obtain feedback, to evaluate even more thoroughly the importance of each potential requirement and to begin to secure internal acceptance of the customer requirements that are determined to be worth pursuing. Departments that should participate in such workshops include those focused on regulatory requirements, billing, corporate communications, demand-side management, customer operations, complaint resolution and outage management.

One way of making the workshop process more “real” and therefore more effective is to develop customer use scenarios that incorporate each potential requirement. For example, the following billing scenarios could be used to illustrate potential customer requirements and to facilitate more effective evaluation of what will be needed for billing:

  • Billing Scenario 1. I want my gas and electric bills to be unified so that I don’t have to spend extra time making multiple payments. Also, I want the choice of paying my bill electronically, by mail or in person, based on what’s convenient for me, not what’s convenient for my utility.
  • Billing Scenario 2. My parents, who are now retired, receive fixed pension checks, and I want their utility to set up a payment plan for them that results in equal payments over the year, rather than high payments in the summer and low payments in the winter. My parents also want the ability to see a summarized version of their bill in large print, so that they can easily read and understand their energy use and costs.
  • Billing Scenario 3. My kids are on their computer nearly all of the time, and the remainder of the time they seem to be playing their video games. Also, they rarely turn off lights, and all of these things are increasing my energy bills. I want my utility to help me set up a balance limit so that if our energy usage reaches a set level, I’m automatically notified and I have the option of taking some corrective actions. I also expect my meter readings to be accurate rather than simply rough estimates, because I want to understand exactly how much energy I am consuming and what it’s costing me.

In addition to assessing the value of each requirement to customers, it is also important to rank these requirements based on other factors, such as their impacts on the utility. Financial costs and benefits, for example, clearly need to be estimated and considered when evaluating a requirement, regardless of how important the requirement will be to customers. To draw all of these assessments together, it is useful to assign weights to each assessment area – for example, a weight of 35 percent for customer importance, 30 percent for utility costs/benefits and 35 percent for the value that regulators will perceive. Once an appropriate weighting scheme is applied, the utility can rank the requirements and develop a list of those with the highest priority.

Task 2: Gaps

To assess gaps in current capabilities that could prevent a utility from meeting important and valuable customer requirements, the utility should next identify the business processes, organizations and technologies that will “deliver” those requirements. This requires a careful analysis of current and planned process, organizational and technology capabilities, which can be challenging because other initiatives will be affecting these areas even as customer requirements evolve. Moreover, many utilities do not have accurate, detailed documentation of current processes and systems. Therefore, a series of workshops and interviews with functional and technology leaders and staff is necessary. The results of these workshops should be supplemented by analysis of planned systems and process transformations, in order to assess current gaps and to determine whether those gaps will be closed – based on plans that are already in place. If such gaps remain, new projects and capital investments may be required to close
them and to meet expected customer requirements.

During the gap assessment process, it’s critical that the customer value team work closely with other IUN teams to ensure that the customer value gap analysis is coordinated with the broader gap analysis for the IUN program. Important areas to coordinate include automated meter information, demand-side management, outage management and asset management.

Task 3: Business Case Support

While conducting the first two tasks, the assessment team should be able to develop a deep understanding of the costs required to meet the important customer requirements as well as the financial benefits. Because it’s typical to develop consolidated business cases for the IUN, the customer value team should work with the overall IUN business case team to support business case development by bringing this information into the process.

Task 4: Transformation Road Map

This final task builds on an understanding of both the customer requirements and the gaps in current operations to create the customer value transformation road map. The initiatives in the road map will typically be defined across the following primary areas:

  • Process;
  • Technology;
  • Performance metrics;
  • Organization and training; and
  • Project management.

For each of these areas, the road map will establish the timing and sequence of initiatives to close the gaps, based on:

  • The utility’s strategic priorities and capacity for change;
  • Linkages to the utility’s overall IUN transformation plans; and
  • Technology dependencies and links to other work areas.
  • Figure 3 provides a summary of the initiatives from a typical customer value transformation road map. The detail behind this summary provides a path to transforming the customer-related operations to meet expected customer requirements over the next five to 10 years.

    CONCLUSION

    Our “customer value transformation road map” approach provides utilities with a structured process for identifying, assessing and prioritizing future customer requirements. Utilities that are successful in developing such a road map will be better prepared to build customer needs into their overall IUN transformation plans. These companies will in turn increase the likelihood that their IUN transformation will improve customer satisfaction, reduce customer care costs and lead to new sources of revenue.

Cutting-Edge Communication: Streamlining Customer Contact With Automated Messaging

Improving cash flow, reducing costs, freeing up agents, experiencing an immediate return on investment: These are what it’s all about, right? Since 1992, TeleVox has been at the forefront of customer communication, offering best-of-breed communication technology. More than 14,000 clients rely on TeleVox each and every day to efficiently and effectively contact their customers. Why? Because the subscription-based HouseCalls automated messaging system has proven to meet all their objectives for only pennies per call.

There’s no denying the positive impact of clear, dependable communication between a utility and its customers. Over the years, however, this has presented an increasingly difficult challenge. Utilities are being asked to communicate with growing customer bases with fewer resources. To help reverse this trend, automated messaging technologies, such as TeleVox’s HouseCalls, have emerged to play an important role in customer contact. As other messaging providers have battled rigid pricing structures, limited calling capacity and functionality challenges, HouseCalls has consistently performed as a cost-effective solution that meets the needs of each individual client.

COLLECTIONS

Nowhere are the benefits of automated messaging technology more apparent than in collections. HouseCalls delivers payment reminders personalized with names, dates, amounts due and other information. Messages also employ multiple levels of right-party verification to protect the customer. Once the message is delivered, the customer can take advantage of response options to speak with a live agent or transfer to an automated third-party credit card acceptance company. When matched with a third-party collector, HouseCalls automates the entire collections process without manual intervention from the utility.

Utilities can determine their own strategy when integrating automated messaging into the collections process. The messages sent to customers can vary in tone and content based on internal credit ratings and scores. Many TeleVox clients use HouseCalls to contact large volumes of newly delinquent accounts (30 to 60 days), hoping to resolve them before they age further. This frees agents to focus on more difficult accounts.

The immediate ROI of automated messaging in collections has made it a widely embraced practice among the nation’s leading utilities for reducing Accounts Receivable. Some utilities have estimated as much as $200 in return for every dollar spent. The technology’s flexibility facilitates quicker, less expensive collections efforts. It also decreases expensive mailings, costly disconnects and truck rolls that become necessary as delinquencies progress.

MARKETING CAMPAIGNS

From billing to usage issues, the range of programs utilities offer to customers has become increasingly broad. Automated calls have experienced phenomenal response rates from customers eager to take advantage of new offerings.

Common marketing campaigns include:

  • Budget billing
  • Low-income housing assistance
  • Meter replacement
  • Demand conservation

Why do automated calls produce greater results than direct-mail pieces, bill stuffers or Emails? One factor is audience attention. Since HouseCalls outbound messages can be recorded using 100 percent human voices and feature the Caller ID number of the utility, customers are more likely to listen to the telephone message than read an extra piece of mail. During the message, many utilities give customers the opportunity to transfer to live agents to learn more about the particular program, enroll during the call or be directed to a website for more information.

Calls cost pennies to deliver, far less than the soaring printing and postage costs associated with mailed media. Whether employed as a stand-alone marketing strategy or combined with direct mail, automated messaging proves to be a cost-effective promotional tool.

OUTAGE AND RESTORATION NOTIFICATIONS

In the utility industry, the old saying holds true: Expect the unexpected. A little preparation goes a long way toward instilling customer confidence, and this certainly applies to service outages. It’s inevitable that at some point customers are going to experience unavoidable interruptions in their service.

When that happens, leading utilities can proactively communicate with customers and keep them informed of the progress being made to restore service in the area. Automated messaging is ideal for such situations, covering large service territories (able to reach as many as 300,000 customers per hour) while maintaining a high capability of customer interaction. Messages can be created and delivered in as little as five minutes.

During outages, customers will often receive messages from their utilities reassuring them that technicians are working to restore service. Providing important contact numbers and information can also be helpful to customers during this period.

As restoration efforts progress, utilities can deliver messages to each customer to determine if service has been restored. Automated messages allow for immediate customer feedback and significantly reduce inbound traffic to the utility’s call center.

In some situations, utilities contact their customer base before a planned outage. This approach is especially appreciated when working with critical-care customers.

HOUSECALLS BENEFITS

Since HouseCalls is a subscription-based ASP (Application Service Provider) solution hosted by TeleVox, there are no hardware purchases or capital investments for the utility. Rather than requiring large expenditures for on-site equipment, utilities are charged on a per-call basis for completed calls – with no cost for undeliverables.

NEXT STEPS

To begin harnessing the power of HouseCalls for your customer communication, you are encouraged to contact a TeleVox representative at 1-800-644-4266 or info@televox.com. You may also visit TeleVox online at www.televox.com.