Jan. 28, 2019 | InBrief

Building a bridge to today's utility customers

Building a bridge to today's utility customers

Yesterday’s ratepayers are today’s power consumers – a reality that has plenty of utility execs reaching for the antacid. Ratepayers were mostly passive purchasers of electricity. Consumers have a long list of demands that includes energy efficiency, electric vehicle charging, renewable energy, and dynamic pricing. Some of them are even becoming mini-utilities themselves, mounting solar arrays on their rooftops to generate their own power. It won’t be long before we see the early adopters with solar, EV charging, battery storage, and automation that optimizes these systems based on market pricing and predicted consumer behavior. 

Compounding the execs’ heartburn, most utilities rely on Customer Information Systems (CIS) designed for the ratepayer era. That leaves their utility leaders with two unappetizing choices: Patch their existing CIS, which drives a litany of vital functions – from preparing billing statements to dispatching repair crews – or rip it out and start over.

But there is a third way. By adding a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system to their existing CIS platform, utilities can bridge the gap between their old technology and the evolving demands of utility customers. No short-term patches, no rip-and-replace. Here’s how it can work.

The transition to customer-facing

The previous wave of software-driven change at utilities was primarily business-facing. The CIS programs utilities installed 10, 15, and 20 years ago were designed to track assets like meters and poles, dispatch customer service crews, manage billing and accounts receivable, and process payments. The next wave of technology-driven change is consumer-facing. While the old CIS jobs are still essential to running a utility, many customer functions can be offloaded to CRM systems that are better suited to managing them. Instead of simply reading meters and sending customers a bill, the new systems must help customers manage their energy use and support the customer service representative in resolving all the customer issues efficiently. Highly adaptable CRM systems from vendors like Salesforce can pair with an existing CIS to create a Customer Information Platform (CIP)—an integrated solution that provides a comprehensive view of customer activity across all the utility offerings, allowing utilities to efficiently manage their current clients and drive profitable growth of new services. Adding CRM to legacy customer management systems can deliver many benefits. Here are a few:

  • Faster time to value: A CRM-based CIP can accelerate analysis and sharing of customer data across the organization. For example, the CRM solution has information on not only usage but also which energy efficiency programs that customer enrolled in and when. Utilities can use this integrated customer view to predict future adoption of advanced rate and DER programs and implement dynamic new programs leveraging the different elements of the CIP instead of waiting years for the installation of a new CIS.
  • Less risky: Installing a new CIS is complex and a bit unpredictable, taking several years and costing as much as $100’s of millions to complete, depending on the size of the utility. Bolting proven CRM systems onto the existing CIS is a lower-risk alternative by putting much of the new functionality on the CRM system and minimizing the changes to the CIS.
  • No `big bang’: At the current pace of evolution, no one can predict where the biggest opportunities in the utility business will emerge in the next ten to 15 years. Yet a “big bang” CIS replacement requires just that: a nearly clairvoyant ability to predict which technologies and capabilities will serve the future market and how to build them into the current system. The difficulty of picking a correct CIS vendor that has built this into their solution is difficult.
  • Avoids over-customization: Modern CRM systems are designed for business customization and can be done in a cost-effective manner, but customization of CIS systems is expensive and creates future challenges when new software versions are deployed as well. Over-customization of the CIS breeds delays, change management problems, and cost overruns.

Adaptable systems for future growth

The best CRM systems are extremely adaptable; they can handle the demands of the new utility customer and support utility functions like outage notification, work orders, customer communications, and load management. With a CRM to manage the customer interactions, utilities can harvest the rich data stream from advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and use it to inform customers about new pricing structures or advise them on energy efficiency programs that can help them optimize their energy usage. The CRM also serves as an ideal platform for emerging functions like transactive energy, where in the future the customer is also an energy provider, putting energy back on the power grid – whether it’s through solar cells on the roof, an EV parked in the garage, or a Tesla Power Wall in the basement.

More complex customer relationships are inevitable as utility customers seek to take advantage of the same technological advances that have transformed financial institutions, online shopping, and entertainment. Today’s customer wants to monitor their energy use on a smartphone and receive a text alert when their power is out or when the utility is offering a premium for the electricity stored in their car battery to help stabilize the power grid. Large commercial customers will demand a sophisticated interface to manage their energy use to be able leverage the most advantageous rate. Distributed energy will add several layers of complexity to the utility-customer relationship that only a robust CIP platform can handle.

At some point, utilities will have to replace their aging CIS, but that does not have be the first step in a utility roadmap to delivering a better customer experience and advanced rates and utility programs. In the meantime, executives have time to think about what their customer-relations software should really look like. What’s in today’s CIS should not be in tomorrow’s CIS. By layering CRM software on top of your existing CIS, you can begin to create a customer centric view of the utility rather than a meter centric view which will help you better manage custom today while adapting your systems for the customer offerings of tomorrow.

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