By Art Haddaway
There's no doubt the water industry has come a long way in recent years with the evolution of new products and technologies, and many utilities across the nation have significantly benefited from them in every area of operation, particularly in the field of customer service.
Many professionals across the water sector would agree that one of the most important facets of a utility's success is its relationship with its customers, and more facilities are integrating new web- and cloud-based systems into their business as a result.
A rising trend in the industry today, web- and cloud-based customer service systems equip water and wastewater utilities with the necessary tools to better connect them with their clients through channels like the Internet, mobile devices and other innovative outlets. Further, these self-service platforms are integral to the success of every area of a facility's customer information systems (CIS) including its call center, accounts and collections, and billing and payment processing.
An effective method for managing important customer accounts, a CIS program is often "the heart of a utility's business application architecture," said Bill Devereaux, Vice President, Industry Strategy, Oracle Utilities. "Typically it's a cash-register and customer-service engine for the plant."
Most water and wastewater facilities utilize a CIS program in one form or another and are adopting web- and cloud-based systems to enhance its functionalities. More so, this integration provides a holistic interactive experience between them and their customers and paves the way for improved utility competence and customer satisfaction across the board.
When it comes to customer satisfaction, vendors like Oracle are leading the way by enabling utilities to configure their own CIS programs to accommodate their clients' needs. Customers in the water and wastewater industry - as in many markets - rely on web- and cloud-based functions for convenience, efficiency and affordability and have a variety of different preferences and expectations when choosing the proper avenue to successfully conduct their business.
"Increasingly today people want the ability to make choices around when they pay their bill and how they interact with you from a customer service perspective," said Devereaux. "The customer service capabilities of a utility and the systems that support them need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of different types of customers."
Oracle's CIS is geared around customer care and billing (CCB) that ultimately has taken its packaged software capabilities, which provide best in-class functions for utilities, and placed it directly in the hands of their customers, giving them a choice of what works best for them, explained Devereaux.
The company's self-service-orientated architecture gives water customers full control of their accounts with real-time access anywhere at any time to valuable services and information from their utility's web portal. Their web- and cloud-based solutions encompass software, platform and infrastructure development that includes social networking, resource planning, capital management, sales and marketing, and data and insight.
"One of my favorite things about what we've done is the ability to blend it into a customer's existing infrastructure, so they can take pieces and parts of it, and as they need, integrate it, affording the utility an opportunity, if they choose, for a more gradual and modular transition to what is essentially and ultimately going to be a completely new infrastructure," he said.
Linda Jackman, Vice President, Industry Strategy, Oracle Utilities, explained that with new technologies come new and enhanced customer services. "There's so much more that you can do with the current architecture like enabling true, rich customer service. What the future holds is that (CIS) will become more and more monetized; where previous CIS programs have been all about customization, the trend is that new systems today are driven by configuration."
A recent report by watereum.org found that the implementation of advanced customer service programs in a water facility that result in customer satisfaction ultimately minimize overall complaints and related costs, maintain customer goodwill and allegiance, and increase their support for the plant's improvement initiatives.
"Utilities that help customers manage their usage, identify service problems quickly and communicate with customers in real-time via multiple channels, will not only build customer satisfaction, but also increase operational efficiency and reliability - which will, in turn, bring customer loyalty," Jackman said.
Oracle's web- and cloud-based platforms have helped utilities lower costs, better manage accounts, and strengthen their relationships with their customers. Further, the company has propelled facilities forward to conduct business in new and innovative ways.
The Chesterfield County Department of Utilities in Chesterfield, Va., experienced this when it implemented a new CIS program in May of 2011 that has significantly improved customer satisfaction through the use of web, mobile and voice-response applications. CIS Infinity from Advanced Utility Systems has improved Chesterfield's overall customer metrics, business process service operations and interactions through multiple communication channels.
Owned by Harris Computer Systems, Advanced replaced Chesterfield's legacy CIS with a technology that combines integration strategy with comprehensive functionality to cut costs and meet customers' needs. Further, the integration of CIS Infinity has helped enable users to effectively manage their customer information and billing solutions through areas such as advanced reporting, search and filtering options, inventory management, security and auditing, and automation of multiple processes.
Peter Fanous, Executive Vice President for Advanced Utility Systems, comments that with CIS Infinity, "first-rate customer service and efficencies are achieved at every stage of the meter-to-cash process." Likewise, "Chesterfield's efforts are supported, empowering their customers to 24/7, real-time access to their accounts, multiple payment options and many ways to interact with the Chesterfield staff."
Research indicates that before implementation, 84 percent of Chesterfield's customers paid their bills through traditional (mailed paper billing, physical drop off) methods; since installing CIS Infinity, only 58 percent of their customers are still paying the same way, a 26 percent difference within three years. Moreover, the company has signed up over 20,000 customers for their web service - an average of about 20 percent of their customer base - and has averaged close to 12,000 customer visits per month.
"We've seen improvements in employee job performances, in our customer service metrics and our revenues, and the most significant thing we've seen today is a change in our customer payment habits," said Fred O. Angel Jr., Customer Operations Administrator for Chesterfield County Department of Utilities. "I think what we recognized when we put in our CIS system was that we needed to upgrade the level of technology that we were providing our customers to give them multiple ways to communicate with us, as well as make payments."
Oracle's offerings and Chesterfield's experiences are just two of many examples of how these systems are providing a solution to many of the challenges utilities face. Likewise, using these outlets yields practitioners a wide range of benefits, particularly within their CIS structure.
Web- and cloud-based customer service trends have rapidly evolved with the advancement of technology in recent years, and what's more is the water and wastewater industry has experienced firsthand the many advantages of incorporating new and innovative equipment into its infrastructure.
"I think we've seen much more adoption of smart technology that's been rolled out, and we'll see much more adoption of that in the water industry," said Jackman.
Ultimately, the main goal for utilities in embracing these methods is to continuously strive toward maintaining a healthy and long-lasting relationship with their customers.
"As an industry we're still learning from different transactions and functions how customers want to interact with us," said Devereaux. "If it's not through the call center, is it through social media? Is it through the Internet? This allows a utility to experiment a little bit and implement things a piece at a time."