Utilities are finding ways to improve service through automated technology. The result is increased ROI in the field, at the call center, and across the business.
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Picture it: You wake up late on a workday because your alarm clock didn't go off. Or you are on time, until you try to shower--and no water comes out of the showerhead. When utilities like power and water fail, CRM must succeed. What's more, increasing demands, not only by regulatory bodies, but also by customers, are requiring utility companies to take more preventive measures against service breaches.
Before the year is out utility companies are set to spend roughly $8 billion, or 1.9 percent of their overall revenues, on technology. That includes investments in CRM technology, according to Andrew Bartels, vice president and research analyst at Forrester Research. It may be a while before most utility companies start to invest in sales force and marketing automation tools, Bartels thinks, but basic customer service software is either already in place or planned for.
"Customer relationships with utilities are usually seen as a necessary evil. People don't have the same positive glow about the gas company as they do about Kenneth Cole," says Ian Jacobs, CRM analyst at Current Analysis.
"Customer service has been the biggest CRM result of the deregulated market. People don't think of difference in cost. Customer loyalty could well depend on which utility provides the fewest negative experiences, rather than on who scores the most positives--customers want the least hassle."
Utility companies have been embedding CRM in their overall business strategies, and are planning how to do more in the future to help energize customer relationships. "[Some vendors] have optimized their product based on the core processes of a utility, allowing utilities to address best practices enabled by the technology versus trying to change the technology," says Robert Brnilovich, partner, IBM business consulting services and utilities industry CRM specialist. "I see a continued investment in CRM organization, process, and technology."
Utilities have an opportunity to reinvent themselves by providing exceptional customer service, says Oscar Alban, global principal marketing consultant at Witness Systems. "Utilities are in an interesting situation, because they're having to compete. That's a one hundred eighty-degree change. Now they have the problem of retaining customers," he says. "They can't change the product. They can differentiate themselves by how they provide service and how they make things easier for the customer. The ones who do it well understand the strategic investment in their company and purchase the technology to make that happen. They're starting to realize CRM is not a technology, it's a strategy."
Some utilities have seen the light when it comes to investing in customer service tools, but vendors providing solutions for utilities need to drive home the value proposition. "The vendor challenge/opportunity is identifying ways that CRM can be of value to a regulated gas or electric company," Forrester's Bartels says. "They are still desirable to understanding customer needs, identifying profitable customers, and analyzing customers in terms of conservation potential."
That's exactly what Marin Municipal Water District in Northern California was looking to do. When Terry Stigall, Marin Water finance manager, first came to the public agency that provides drinking water to 185,000 people in a 147-square-mile area, he says he "had about twenty-five different systems that no longer talked to each other--if at all--very well. Our utility billing system didn't talk to our accounting system--I couldn't believe it. The best information I had was thirty days old. It's difficult to run [an organization] if you don't have good financial information."
Stigall knew the company needed real-time access to information if it wanted to support its commitment to operating efficiency, customer service, and conservation. Also, the area serves multiple microclimates all consuming water at different rates, and the water company wanted to restructure its conservation tier accordingly. Marin Water selected SAP's SAP for Public Sector and SAP for Utilities applications.
Using these products enabled the district to cut the dollar volume of inventory it stored by 25 percent, because it tracked how fast products were coming off the shelves, letting Marin Water replace tanks and other bulk items only when necessary. It also started an automated sprinkler program for residential customers that has a sensor to track wind, temperature, and moisture and turns the water on and off as needed. SAP's integration capabilities enabled Marin Water to restructure its conservation tier and provide customers bills indicating how much water they used versus their immediate neighbors and the overall district. Now the utility is letting customers pay online and is planning to provide more detailed conservation information.
SAP also enabled Marin Water to reduce the amount of money it retains in its capital projects budget by 45 percent, Stigall says. "We're looking at how much we can put out the door with the staff we have" and how to change the organization's long-range capital plan based on trends in certain projects. "Preventive maintenance used to be people who have been here twenty to thirty years saying, 'I remember that pipe keeps breaking.' But how often? Now we're able to track that.
"We're being squeezed to reduce costs and so we've been using technology to focus on our problem areas, what needs to be addressed, and which will get us the best cost benefits," Stigall says. "We have much better information and can make better business decisions. We can control costs and still provide a quality product."
Getting on Schedule
Quebec's Gaz Metropolitan Plus is Canada's third-largest natural gas distributor, with more than 30,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers across the region. Facing tough competition in April 2004, the company needed to provide "outstanding" costumer service as a way of differentiating itself, says Yvan Lefebrve, director of IT. Gaz Met wanted to increase the capacity of its field service technicians and improve overall service to its customers. It had decided to outsource the call center and dispatch center, and blend both units into one. Unfortunately, the call center outsourcing company it selected knew nothing about dispatching gas service technicians, critical knowledge when it comes to leaks or other important problems.
The company implemented ClickSoftware Technologies' ClickSchedule software, which provides optimization capabilities that intelligently schedule jobs based on a variety of user-defined parameters, including resource availability, engineer skill sets, territory, and service level agreements. This limited the need for the vendor to hire specialized dispatchers. "Utilities are trying to have the human being be an exception," says David Schapiro, executive vice president of markets and products for ClickSoftware. "Dispatchers can be policy definers and let the system fight fires."
Part of the system that fights fires includes Gaz Met's 50 technicians, who must answer 50,000 calls per year--a number that keeps increasing. Still, ClickSchedule allows Gaz Met to add one additional service call per day per technician, a 20 percent increase. "ClickSchedule has been fundamental in effecting significant improvements in our service arm," Lefebrve says. "We started seeing results immediately, and today we are satisfying significantly more customers with the same number of resources as we had a year ago. That's a huge benefit for us."
Gaz Met had used four dispatchers, and now only uses one. As a result, Click is sending the right technician to each job, overall productivity is higher, and operational costs are lower. "We are on our way to save hard dollars--close to five hundred thousand dollars per year," Lefebrve says.
Once they're in the field, service professionals use tablet PCs to automatically update their status and complete work orders remotely. If a customer calls with a follow-up problem, agents in the office can see the work order immediately, even the signature. This reduces the cost of processing work orders and results in better service in the call center. Going mobile also allows technicians to search for particular products even if they only know one field (description, manufacturer, model, price, or product number, even if it is only a portion). Before, they had a weighty book to flip through. "Technicians are happier because they have less paperwork to do," Lefebrve says. "It gives them more time to do their real job."
AGL Resources, a regional energy-holding company in Atlanta with business segments in natural gas distribution operations, wholesale services, and energy investments, is a utility that doesn't take its customers for granted. They can quit the company for electric stoves and water heaters, or use propane gas to heat their homes, according to Beth Reese, vice president of customer service. Good customer service is important for an additional reason: Complaints can be made to regulatory agencies if customers are unhappy.
AGL has more than 1.8 million customers across 250 communities in five states. It wanted to capture and evaluate customer interactions for coaching and performance feedback purposed to its roughly 150 customer service representatives across two sites. The utility needed to refine and enhance business processes, heighten productivity, and ensure service excellence and customer satisfaction. It deployed Witness's eQuality Producer and eQuality Now as part of a company-wide initiative to use technology to streamline business process execution, increase productivity, and extend its business capabilities across the company.
"We wanted technology that would help us provide best practice examples of authentic customer interactions we could use for new-hire and continuous training," says Lee Lively, manager of performance solutions. "There is nothing more powerful--from a training perspective--than being able to address skills deficiencies with e-learning that is based on actual recorded customer interactions. Being able to demonstrate how to handle critical calls is extremely valuable, as it helps prepare our agents prior to them being in an actual situation."
If an agent isn't meeting certain skill requirements a training tool on that area can be launched to that person's desktop. The company can then retest that agent. "Part of the reason we went with Witness was because of its functionality," Reese says. "We wanted to improve tailored training. Our whole goal is to provide a quality call to reduce callbacks and improve first-call resolution. Part of our goal is to ask, 'What could you have done better?'" It isn't always about how long customers had to wait for an answer, but how long they are willing to wait to get the right answer so they don't have to call again, according to Reese. Complaints decreased 25 percent.
AGL Resources is in the process of implementing the recording and training tool in the dispatch center, to ensure the right information and communication is taking place between the call center and field service reps. "Before, we had no idea what dispatch said or what they're looking at. [Now] you can recreate the whole experience," Reese says. "You can listen to a call and think, 'Oh gosh, did I really say that?'"
AGL is also implementing mobile systems from Logica for its distribution crews to remotely download their work onto a mobile data terminal. Previously, work was manually tracked. Real-time scheduling is the first priority. AGL Resources' long-term strategic vision, according to Reese, is to combine distribution and field service workforces to send a job to anyone, anywhere in the organization.
As CRM becomes more cost-effective utilities will look to increase mobile apps, including integrating GIS systems and ramping up online services in the form of bill paying and complaint forms. The message is clear that utilities understand how CRM, even in its most basic form, can improve their entire business.
Contact Senior Editor Alexandra DeFelice at adefelice@destinationCRM.com
Who's Who in Utility CRM (in alphabetical order)
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