No one can argue that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed society. It extends to the way we interact with each other, how we deal with vendors and service providers, and how we communicate and work.
Recent events have pushed businesses in all industries to use technology in ways that otherwise might not have been attempted for years to come—including utilities. Our recent 100-percent go-live of VertexOne CIS Enterprise™ and Customer Self Service platform for Pinellas County Utilities (PCU)—with the entire country on lockdown—was a first. It highlights just one of several ways such a pivotal crisis can change businesses, their customers and their operations forever.
Remote isn’t a luxury, but a necessity
Companies in many industries issue laptops so workers can perform their own work from home. Today, even utilities are finding that work from home isn’t just a necessity, but it is efficient and provides cost-savings, too.
The PCU go-live wasn’t intended to be done remotely, but it was a complete success. While VertexOne has been using “remote hands” for some time, we still expected both VertexOne and PCU project teams on-site for the go-live. However, the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place directives made travel difficult—and it forced Pinellas’ IT team to quickly provide infrastructure to allow its employees to work from home. After a successful “dry run,” PCU management gave its approval for a 100-percent remote go-live.
Beyond individuals performing their own tasks, this proves just how possible it is to execute huge technology projects remotely. A utility and its technology partner can collaborate, design, implement, test, train and go live working remotely, and then support the live system and its customers from wherever they happen to be. In Pinellas’ case, quickly pivoting to put the needed infrastructure in place required conviction and commitment on the part of the utility’s management. While not every company can pivot so quickly, other utilities should view this as an opportunity and a necessity for the future—and start planning now.
Virtual and self-service adoption will further accelerate
The ability to check and pay one’s utility bill from a browser or mobile app just got way more important. No one likes to wait in line, which is why most utilities—like other service providers—offer some type of self-service option via a customer portal or mobile app. That’s been beneficial in the long term, particularly in light of the shelter-in-home orders. Because while providing utilities may be considered an “essential service,” providing a walk-up window, kiosk or lobby service may not be.
Adoption of web and mobile self-service have been on the rise for years. Unlike the online experiences offered by merchants and other tech-savvy companies, utilities often lag behind. Those that offer very limited capabilities and payment options may have found themselves in a hard place.
Although self-service technology adoption may be crucial during a crisis, many customers still prefer old-school, in-person interactions. There will always be customers who resist change. However, one of the biggest surges in adoption for online grocery shopping during COVID-19 are the elderly—90% of whom say they will continue to use it. By that indication, even the resistors will grow accustomed to online self-service by necessity—and most won’t go back once the crisis is past us.
Automated hands-off infrastructure will surge
As with self-service portals and mobile apps, the adoption of hands-off infrastructure among utilities has been steadily growing. Automatic meter reading (AMI) and smart meter technology is one example. With AMI, meter readers needn’t walk every neighborhood in each city or town to check usage, resulting in significant labor cost savings and efficiencies. But in a crisis like COVID-19, it could also significantly reduce chances of exposure for utility staff and consumers alike. While the middle of a pandemic isn’t exactly the ideal time to start one of these implementations, perhaps it is the time to plan one and get it on the books.
AMI is only one example of hands-off infrastructure which might accelerate during and after COVID-19. For most industries, the shift to cloud infrastructure is well underway, and while utilities have historically lagged behind in adoption, that’s changing—as seen with Pinellas County Utilities. Beyond the cost efficiencies, it shifts much of the technology infrastructure burden off the utility’s staff. With the right technology partner, it also means a utility needn’t build, maintain and support completely custom software solutions. Instead, they can let a partner like VertexOne handle it all with full business continuity plans—just in case.
A situation like COVID-19 may not be a big reason for cloud adoption, but it underscores why—beyond the obvious—outsourcing infrastructure may mean the difference between full business continuity and a utility barely (if at all) keeping the lights on.
The new normal—it’s not all bad
In the midst of the current crisis, we as individuals may yearn for the day when things go back to “normal.” Yet many things—including some of our behaviors—are likely changed forever.
Technology has played a huge part in the way society has been able to weather the storm. Without implementation and adoption of customer self-service tools, customers would be less able to pay their bill or even communicate with their utility providers. Without technology like AMI and the cloud, utilities would have to send people into the field or to their own data centers, instead of using automation. And without remote technologies like those used by VertexOne, utilities like Pinellas County would have had to put their new CIS go-live on indefinite hold. These changes are for the better.
Maybe in some respects the new normal won’t be so bad.