Deregulation makes for new bedfellows

With open competition coming in the British Columbia utilities market, BC Gas opted for a pre-emptive strike by revamping its entire customer care solution.

The gas company went from a Unisys legacy database system to a customer-centric relational database from New Zealand-based Peace Software.

Edna Katrichak, senior manager in customer works for BC Gas, hopes this move will help the utility retain customers in the soon-to-be competitive market.

“This will mean we can support the deregulated market,” she said. “We certainly couldn’t with our old system. Our intent is to have all of BC Gas’ customers on this system.”

Katrichak added that, in terms of deregulation, one of the drivers in selecting Energy, Peace’s browser-interface solution, was the feeling that this product could really help.

“Peace had been involved in deregulated environments before and that was a big attraction for us,” she said. New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to deregulate its energy industry and in 1989 Peace won the contract to help it update its customer solutions.

BC Gas had originally heard about Peace at a conference when the utility had discussions with Northwest Natural Gas. Northwest had evaluated products on the market and Peace’s Energy was part of that process.

In 1997 BC gas looked to Peace for their upgrade. “We wanted something more functionally rich than what we had in our existing system. We wanted something that supported multi-utilities because our legacy system was a gas-only environment and we wanted something with more flexibility,” Katrichak explained.

Energy is a Web-based Customer Information System (CIS) which offers customer management and billing functionality for deregulated needs, according to Brian Peace, founder and CEO of Peace Software.

“Peace went into Australia around the same time as this thing called the Internet started to have an impact. The Internet was a great device for us to get tools and information,” Peace said.

He added at this point Peace adopted the Internet at a company level and started looking at solutions that integrated with the Web.

“We decided that the ultimate product for the deregulated retail energy market would be one that would have a browser front end…through and through.”

In 1998 Peace did a pilot project for 30,000 BC Gas customers in Prince George, B.C.

Katrichak said that pilot also delivered one of the first browser applications for customer care to BC Gas. “It was a scaled-back version. It had less functionality than the existing browser and it was very much a prototype,” she said.

In April 2000 the first roll-out of 250,000 customers was completed. BC Gas and Peace hope by the end of the year that number will grow to encompass all 750,000 BC Gas customers.

Peace said Energy gave the customer service representatives (CSRs) a scripted dialogue that comes from a knowledge base, so if someone calls with a credit problem the CSR can go into the system and it will tell them the business process that applies to that type of customer.

Deborah McAnulty, a CSR with BC Gas, likes having all that information at her fingertips, although she noted there is still more information to be added.

“Because we only implemented it at Easter, we don’t have all the history information on it yet, so sometimes we do have to go back to the other database,” she said, adding she expects the new database will outgrow the old one by the end of the year.

McAnulty noted the main difference between this system and the previous one is that Energy is much more customer-based.

“With the old system the information collected was relevant to an address. If you owned a home and you set up an account with us, in the old system we would assign the home an account number and as each person moves in and out of that home the last number on the account would change, so all the information would be pertinent to the address,” she explained.

Now the information is pertinent to the customer, McAnulty said. Each customer is assigned a number and information moves with them.

“We don’t need to ask as many questions now. We have their information current and we can just update an address or phone number,” she stated. “In the old system it took about eight or 10 minutes to set up a new account. Now it takes about five.”

However, she said the main difference for her is going from an old fashioned type of software – “A DOS-looking system that I used almost 20 years ago” – to something that’s Web-based.

“The part that I use day to day is a browser interface so it looks like I’m surfing the ‘net all day, which is what I love to do,” McAnulty said.

She added her fellow workers were able to adjust to the new system with great ease. “There’s a variety of navigational paths. There’s a wide range of experience and skills here, but the usability of this is so simple. I see different degrees of comfort, but I don’t see discomfort.”

McAnulty noted customer feedback on the new system has been good so far, adding customers like to be able to go on the Web and enter meter readings or have continuous access to their bills.

Katrichak said the help desk calls are even going down. BC Gas set up a separate help desk to help with implementation.

“We did that specifically to make sure we properly evaluated whether the problem had to do with the hardware and infrastructure or whether it was an application concern,” she said.

The Energy software is priced at US$4 on a per-customer basis.