The customer knows best. It's a Cliché, but this marketing axiom applies to the utility industry whether you're a lineworker, design engineer, customer care representative, regulator or CEO. While very few residential utility customers understand the difference between a primary or secondary distribution service line, they definitely understand technology-enabled service.
In today's service-oriented economy, customers expect to be listened to carefully and catered to individually with information to help them make their own choices. Regardless of the engineering measurements the utility industry applies to reliability or the reliability numbers actually attained, our customers' service perceptions are the new service reality. While advanced distribution controls and distribution automation/recloser programs play a key role in forming customers' views of service, the total quality of service perceived by energy customers is defined by a combination of service, reliability and price.
RESPONSE TO MARKET CHANGE
The United Illuminating Co. (UI) is a wires-only investor-owned utility business serving more than 320,000 energy customers throughout southwestern Connecticut. Today, in the post-deregulation environment of Connecticut, the definition of “customer/client” encompasses a wide range of stakeholders including grid operators, legislators, regulators, energy retailers, and traditional commercial, industrial and residential energy customers. Approaching deregulation in 2000, however, UI's executive team launched a companywide review of all business processes with a goal of meeting the challenges of new market dynamics.
As a pure delivery and customer service utility organization, UI took a fresh look at meter-to-cash business processes and at its customer support systems. UI now refers to these processes collectively as “acquire revenue and fulfill service-related requests.” These two core processes are part of UI's client fulfillment division. Since 2000, UI has implemented a multiyear technology and business transformation program that has delivered significant benefits for all of its stakeholders. UI implemented wireless mobile dispatching, customer information, automatic call distribution and interactive voice-response systems. In addition, UI's early adopter deployment of what the market now calls advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has enabled a real-time connection with customers, and the resulting data has supported a wide range of initiatives with measurable results:
In 2004, UI's finance management teams used the advanced metering platform, along with the systems applications and products billing (SAP) system, to improve the accuracy of the unbilled calculation by performing exact month-end usage analysis for all customers. This effort resulted in a one-time reconciliation of unbilled revenue delivering US$1 million in net income.
UI customer care teams use daily historical and real-time reads to increase first-call customer inquiry close outs. This has significantly decreased callbacks and lowered call center volumes. In 2005, UI used the advanced metering platform to monitor energy-consumption trends with specific accounts on a daily and intra-day basis and, in the process, discovered hundreds of instances of energy theft. The total savings are estimated at more than $500,000 in losses that would have otherwise been passed to other stakeholders.
In spring 2006, UI completed time-of-use rate changes for more than 30,000 customers in less than 24 hours by leveraging the two-way network capabilities of its advanced metering system. In the past, site visits to reprogram meters were required. UI estimates labor savings of more than $1.4 million compared to traditional approaches to rate conversion.
As 2007 approaches, Connecticut faces wholesale energy supply cost increases that will result in unavoidable retail electricity price increases for customers. But armed with new capabilities from Nexus Energy Software, UI has plans to deploy Web-based customer analysis tools that will further extend its use of Cellnet advanced metering data. These tools will give customers self-service capabilities to view accounts, analyze rate options and better manage energy-usage patterns through conservation and other personal initiatives. The deployment of remote-disconnect technology in 2007 will streamline collections processes and introduce potential new opportunities such as residential interruptible rates or prepay solutions. UI also will be integrating the metering data and “single light out” messages from Cellnet into a new outage management system currently in deployment at UI.
At the foundation of all these initiatives is UI's AMI — the relatively straightforward 20th century idea that is quickly becoming a key to the future of the 21st century utility.
Joe Thomas is associate vice president and general manager of client fulfillment for United Illuminating Co. [email protected]