October 23, 2013

Leveraging the Customer Service Portal

For 24-Hour Customer Self-Service, Prepaid Metering, and Usage Monitoring

As their customer bases have grown over the years, utility providers have always tried to stay one step ahead of the demands of the day by seeking out and offering consumers the most up-to-date services available. Utilities across the country work every day to ensure that their customers have easy access to utility information, diverse options for account maintenance and bill payment, and quality customer service and self-service around the clock. For many utilities, SEDC’s Customer Service Portal provides just the toolset they need to meet the demand by giving consumers 24-hour access to a wide range of self-service options, including Bill Payment, Alerts & Reminders, Budget and Levelized Billing, Arrangements, Service Orders, Round Up, and even Online Chat with a Customer Service Representative (CSR). According to Mark Shults, General Manager at Northeast Nebraska Public Power District, the Customer Service Portal was a major factor in the utility’s decision to use SEDC’s software package. “One of the big reasons to go with a software provider like SEDC was to give our customers the opportunity to do business over the web twenty-four hours a day.” By integrating with the utility’s existing web presence, the Customer Service Portal enables a utility to offer secure self-service options that connect directly to the UPN CIS database, helping to eliminate mundane tasks from the Customer Service Representative’s already bulging workload.

For Chickasaw Electric Cooperative, located just outside of Memphis in Somerville, Tennessee, the portal is more than a customer service tool – it is the utility’s internet window to the world. “We’re using it as our main website,” said Loyd Muncy, the Engineering Supervisor and UPN Administrator at Chickasaw EC. “We’ve adapted pages so people can download our rates, our service applications, and some customer information, and we’re going to be adding to it soon.” The flexibility and ease of use of the portal were major factors in Chickasaw’s decision to use the portal in the first place. “It’s much easier for our internal person to keep it updated,” Muncy asserts. “This has really facilitated us keeping a more current website by someone who knows nothing about web design or about keeping a website updated.”

Keeping current is a major theme at utilities in all areas. And while most people would not immediately think of a small town in Nevada as being technologically progressive, it is often the rural areas that have the most need for progressive options. Overton Power District #5, based in Overton, Nevada, was an early adopter of the portal, seeing it as an ideal way to provide good service to a diverse and wide-ranging consumer base. “When the portal first came out, we started using it, and we add the new options as soon as they come out,” notes Lorrie Laird, Billing Supervisor at Overton’s main office. “We have our website out there, but this makes it so easy for our customers. If they’re on vacation, wherever they are, they can pay with a credit card. They can see how much their bill is; see when it’s due.” Laird also points out that the utility and the customers appreciate the accessibility the portal provides. “We have a lot of snowbirds. They’re in and out. They’re only there for maybe a month at a time. With this, they can look at their bill any time, wherever they are.”

Flint Energies in Reynolds, Georgia, agrees. In early 2011, Flint decided to incorporate SEDC’s Customer Service Portal into their website, launching their own “Member Service Portal.” In the second half of 2011, they deployed SEDC’s bundled Meter Data Management/Prepaid Metering solution (MDM/PPM) as well as SEDC’s Mobile Apps for smart phones, all of which leverage the Customer Service Portal to extend information and self-service options to the membership. With the addition of these new capabilities, Flint now offers self-service tools to assist their members with managing every stage of the customer life cycle, from applying for service and maintaining their account to managing their usage and paying their bills. To Shiquita Ross, a Member Service Representative at Flint Energies, providing a number of online customer self-service options just makes sense. “It’s convenient. It’s better service to our members. You have some people that don’t get off work in time to actually stop in the office or they can’t call during the day. So this is just another way to provide good customer service without them having to actually call in.” Mark Shults at Northeast Nebraska PPD agrees, “This was really the whole impetus to everything we did. It was to give our customers more ability to do business themselves. If they can go online and look at their bill and charges, they might answer their own question.”

By providing the right tools to keep on top of their accounts, the Portal makes it easy for consumers to be good customers. With Alerts & Reminders, which can be set up either by a CSR in UPN or by the customers on the Portal, customers can be notified of approaching due dates or missed payments. At Chickasaw EC, this has positively impacted their customer relations. “People who are cut off come in complaining that they didn’t know they were on the list,” says Chickasaw’s Loyd Muncy. “We tell them, we can set the alerts up for you. You can go online and set them up. We can email you. We can text you. And they can’t argue any more!” Flint Energies’ IT Specialist, Todd Bigler, agrees that Alerts & Reminders serve a valuable role in keeping payments on time, and he also believes they give the member peace of mind. “I myself use our Alerts & Reminders. Having that reminder to pay your bill and then actually seeing an alert that the payment has gone through, it’s a big deal and I think it’s a big deal to our members too.”

With Flint’s “Pay Your Way” prepaid program, the utility is including Alerts & Reminders in the account creation process to ensure the member is set up to receive notifications either by cell phone or email. Ross believes this step is absolutely essential. “Everyone needs that little reminder, and everyone has their cell phone at all times. So with Alerts & Reminders, for them to be able to receive that text message or email to remind them of the bill or a due date, I think that’s awesome.”

Keeping customers on time with their payments is important to every utility, whether it serves eight thousand meters or eighty thousand. Flint Energies has started looking beyond that and is now introducing tools to help its members lower their bills by lowering their usage. With SEDC’s Meter Data Management system, Flint is able to display real-time usage information to MSRs through UPN and to members through the Customer Service Portal. Bigler and Ross both agree that MDM has already impacted the way Flint’s MSRs serve their members. “As soon as we tied it into UPN,” says Bigler, “the MSRs began utilizing the Get Usage button.” Ross remembers that she was excited to be able to help members see their daily usage. “It’s a big help, because it makes them think, ‘Well, what was I doing this day in my home using approximately 30 kilowatt hours? Alright, I did laundry, so that’s where the biggest portion of it went or that’s the reason it jumped.’”

With the MDM system displaying usage directly to members through the Portal, Bigler sees a lot of potential for the “Pay Your Way” prepaid program to assist members who migrate to prepaid accounts, including members who are not traditionally viewed as candidates for prepaid metering. “There are people out there who like to be able to control things, especially numbers, and if they can control their kilowatt hour usage by seeing their usage, seeing the dollars tick off of their account, they could be the best customer on our lines and they still may sign up for prepaid metering.” Of course, prepaid metering will appeal most to members who struggle to keep on top of their electric bill each month. Once a member has fallen into the cycle of delinquency and cutoffs, it can be very difficult for them to break the cycle and restore their account to good standing. For these members and for the utilities that serve them, SEDC’s Prepaid Metering is a win-win solution. “I’m so excited to explain it and to put it out there and give it to the members,” says Ross. “You don’t have to worry about your collection service fee. You don’t have to worry about a late penalty every month. You don’t have to worry about a deposit increase because you’ve been cut off for the first time and you didn’t have a deposit on file before. Sign up for Pay Your Way and it’s going to eliminate all those fees. And the way we’re doing Debt Management, it’s going to benefit the company and the member. They’ll both benefit from it.”

Whether the member has a traditional account or a prepaid account, timely payments can mean the difference between a member maintaining service or being cut off. To give their increasingly-mobile consumers the ability to pay their bills on the go, both Overton Power and Flint Energies have deployed their own branded versions of SEDC’s Mobile Apps and Mobile Web App for those members who access the Member Service Portal from a smart phone or a mobile device. Now, when an online visitor navigates to Overton’s Portal or to Flint’s Portal from a smart phone’s browser, they are automatically routed to each utility’s Mobile Web App. From there, the consumer can securely manage their account and make real-time payments (to traditional and to prepaid accounts) using a mobile-friendly version of the Portal. For both utilities, customers with iPhones or Android devices are also encouraged to install a compatible Mobile App, which gives them one-touch access to nearly every account management and payment feature available in the Customer Service Portal. Bigler expects Flint’s apps to be well received. “Once our members realize there’s an application they can download to their smart phone, and it will do everything they can do when they call the office or most everything they do when they come to the counter, I know they will start using it.”

By providing consumers with so many account management options, these utilities each hope to continue their tradition of building an educated consumer base while staying on the forefront of customer service. “The biggest benefit to the portal,” asserts Chickasaw’s Loyd Muncy, “is just having that information there for the member. We can have a form out there to repair a security light. We can have a service order for connect service. You can suggest changes for your mailing address and update your phone numbers.” Lorrie Laird with Overton agrees. “You can put everything on it and you can do everything.” That is exactly what Northeast Nebraska wanted, and Mark Shults likes the direction the utility is heading with the Customer Service Portal. “We want to go all electronic when we can, and we want to promote that,” he states. “So anything that lets the customer help themselves, we want to make that available to them.”

When it comes to letting the customer help themselves, simplicity is key. With the SEDC Customer Service Portal working for them, utilities eliminate the need for multiple third-party integrations, making the entire system easier to maintain and easier to promote to their consumers. Todd Bigler at Flint believes that is the right way to go. “We are looking out for our members and trying to do the best for our members. The package that SEDC offers for Member Services keeps it all housed in the CIS system, in one place with one login for the member, and that has been a big deal.”

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