Direct debit collection system improves customer service

Increasing revenues, reducing customer churn and creating satisfied customers were the ambitious five year goals of EcoWater Systems, one of the UK's oldest and largest players in the water softening industry. Four years later EcoWater has already exceeded its goals following changes to its working practices in the service area and the implementation of Albany Software's eCOLLECT system, a direct debit management solution...

Increasing revenues, reducing customer churn and creating satisfied customers were the ambitious five year goals of EcoWater Systems, the oldest and largest player in the water softening industry. Four years later EcoWater has already exceeded its goals following changes to its working practices in the service area and the implementation of Albany Software's eCOLLECT system, a direct debit management solution. Following the recent upgrade to the latest version of eCOLLECT, EcoWater is set to make further enhancements to the service offered to its thousands of customers across the UK.

Established in 1925 EcoWater, part of the Marmon Group, a privately-held international corporation with 30,000 employees and sales in excess of $6 billion, is the largest manufacturer of residential water treatment systems in the world. Colin Penn, Financial Controller at EcoWater admits that hard water is a problem, saying, "Limescale in kettles and scum around baths provides ample evidence of the far-reaching effects that can cause untold damage to household appliances and central heating systems." The in-built intelligence in EcoWater's softeners not only delivers the correct level of soft water but can even offer remote monitoring to assist engineers with potential diagnosis before visits.

Streamlining its after sales service and contract management system to include the ability for customers to pay by direct debit has improved efficiency for EcoWater's 5,000 contract customers and 10-strong field engineering team.

Prior to the adoption of an automated collection system, EcoWater relied on informing customers that their annual maintenance inspection visit was due and encouraging clients to contact them for an appointment. At the end of the service visit the invoice for the following year's service contract would be presented and the engineer would collect payment. "There were flaws in the system," admits Colin Penn. "Some customers would never get round to fixing an appointment and so their service contract would lapse, plus our engineers had to spend additional time managing the payment collection process."

EcoWater recognized that offering customers a direct debit option for the automatic renewal of their annual service contracts would not only help customers by providing continuity for service provision, but would also benefit engineers who could spend more time interacting with customers and maintaining equipment.

"Our bank offered us its own software solution, but this was basically an interface between its existing administration system and the BACS (Bankers Automated Clearing Services) system," says Colin Penn. "We recognized that we needed a complete solution that would also handle the task of customer data management -- the maintenance of names, addresses, contact and equipment information -- plus the BACS payment."

At that time there were few suppliers who could meet EcoWater's requirements -- some only offered BACS connectivity, while other products were not scalable enough to handle the thousands of service contracts already in existence plus the anticipated future growth.

"Albany quickly stood out as the only company that could meet our criteria," recalls IT Manager Jonathan Osborne. EcoWater opted for Albany's complete direct debit collection management system eCOLLECT -- a perpetual engine working behind the scenes to ensure funds are collected at the appropriate time. Intelligent, scalable and designed to manage the entire transaction lifecycle of a direct debit, eCOLLECT maintains control over the collections process with minimal manual intervention. Advanced features that appealed to EcoWater included the Automated Direct Debit Instruction Service (AUDDIS) reports, which facilitate the process of setting up new mandates; the ability to update its accounts directly from BACS; and the facility to highlight any direct debit failures for subsequent action via the Automated Direct Debit Amendment and Cancellation Service (ADDACS). "The arguments for eCOLLECT were compelling, and the implementation was surprisingly straightforward," acknowledges Jonathan Osborne.

Once the eCOLLECT system was in place, EcoWater encouraged its customers to migrate to using direct debits as their contracts came up for renewal. Customers responded positively with over 90 per cent choosing to opt for the automatic continuation of their service contracts with the ease of a direct debit.

One of the important advantages of the new payment collection process is also one of the least tangible -- the ability to develop a customer relationship that is both enduring and professional. "This way of doing business allows a purely service-based relationship between our engineers and our customers, since the engineer is no longer required to ask the customer for payment," says Colin Penn. "It also means that we could redesign the process for scheduling and arranging maintenance visits as they are no longer as time dependant on the contract renewal date."

Regular engineer maintenance visits are now grouped geographically and scheduled to minimize traveling time. Each customer is notified of the date and time that the engineer will be calling and unless they require a change to the appointment they have no further action to take. Their water softening equipment is regularly inspected and maintained and the service contract is automatically renewed. "We have made it easy for our customers -- they no longer have to pick up a phone or put a check in the post," says Colin Penn. "And they can continue to enjoy softer laundry, improved heating efficiency and sparkling bathrooms knowing that regular maintenance keeps their EcoWater softener at optimum performance."

Prior to installing eCOLLECT, the EcoWater team had little previous knowledge of processing direct debits, however since the application knows all the rules this has proved to be straightforward. "New direct debit instructions require different handling from existing ones, but eCOLLECT takes care of this for us," explains Colin Penn. Every aspect of collection is handled automatically -- after the weekly payment collection run has been initiated by EcoWater staff, eCOLLECT produces a data file, submits it to BACS and then reports the outcome. Any necessary letters advising customers of forthcoming collections in the case of new contracts are also generated automatically. In addition, eCOLLECT and the move to direct debits has simplified the renewal of contracts eliminating a large part of the previous process, reducing the cost of processing payments and saving administrative time for both engineers and office staff.

eCOLLECT has proved simple to operate and even the upgrade to the latest version has proved painless. "The upgrade was nice and smooth. Once we decided to do it we simply gave our backup file and the new server to Albany and eCOLLECT did the rest," says Jonathan Osborne. "We didn't have any doubts that it would work, we went live straight away with the new system and decommissioned the old one."

The latest features include the ability to update globally. "At some point we will have a price change, now we can implement it at one key press across a product or customer range. Previously we would have had to manually change each customer account -- that's a big time saving," says Jonathan Osborne. Performance has also increased, with processing time for monthly collection reports reducing from 40 minutes to under a minute.

By managing payments effectively, eCOLLECT is also allowing EcoWater to build better customer relations and improve customer satisfaction levels. Engineers and office staff have benefited from streamlined processes, improving effectiveness. Colin Penn sums up saying, "eCOLLECT has realised the benefits we hoped for -- not only a more predictable cash flow, but also improved customer retention, easier and cheaper cash collection and better use of our engineers' time."


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