This month, The Faces of Vertex features Andre Van Honschooten, our vice president of systems integration. Andre talks to us about how the VertexOne approach to CIS implementation reduces risks that can plague projects which use traditional methodologies.

PAM: Andre, tell us a bit about what you do for Vertex and our customers.

ANDRE: I’ve spent my career working with utilities to improve the way they interact with their customers. This ranges from improving the efficiency of reading meters to adding new ways for customers to pay their bills. In other words, I improve the meter-to-cash process. I do that by implementing, enhancing and supporting utility CIS applications and the ways in which they interact with utility customers.

PAM: In your experience, what are the biggest risks associated with the traditional approach to CIS implementation?

ANDRE: Most risk falls into one of four areas.

The first area is data migration. Obviously, we have to move data from an old meter-focused system to a new customer-focused one, and that carries risk. And there’s a lot more than just meter data to migrate. A utility doesn’t update their CIS only to find they’ve sent a customer an inaccurate bill and ended up in the press! Yet data migration is often left to the last and then rushed.

The second area of risk is the integration with other systems in the utility’s infrastructure. A CIS has to communicate with meters, send bills, accept payments and help CSRs serve their customers. These are just a few examples. When implementing a CIS, coordinating the timing and testing of all the integrations is complex and adds risk.

Then there’s testing. A utility performs so many different processes behind the scenes, all related to how it interacts with customers.  All these have to work with the new CIS. Not having enough time or capability to thoroughly test everything adds significant risk. 

The final big risk area, I would say, is business readiness. It’s sometimes easy to forget how a major technology change will impact the utility employees that will use the new system. These changes challenge everyone, not just customer service reps. For example, a field service worker who installs meters may now have to use mobile technology. Not preparing the business for using the new tools and processes ahead of time introduces a big risk.

PAM: You mentioned the danger of sending inaccurate bills because of data migration errors. What are some other things that can, and often do, go wrong?

ANDRE: Besides data migration, inaccurate bills can also result from integration problems. If the meter reads are bad or unavailable, for example, bills might be sent late or based on estimated data. Late bills lead to late payments, too. But a lot more can go wrong than a bad invoice.

If a CSR isn’t properly trained on the system, or if an integration with another system is slow or down, call wait times can go up, and multiple calls might be needed for resolution. When call volume spikes and wait times go up, customer satisfaction goes down.

These things adversely affect a utility’s operations and profitability—not the results you expected from your new CIS. Pinpointing the cause of problems like these after going live is difficult, since they can stem from more than one of the risk areas.

PAM: Here at Vertex, you pushed for a new methodology for implementing and running a utility CIS. Tell me about that.

ANDRE: The typical approach is a long, drawn-out project, where a utility works with a vendor to design their new CIS solution. They almost design it from scratch, with only the old systems and processes as reference points. The vendor goes away and builds it, and only then do they start testing and data migration activities. By that time, there’s minimal time left to test every scenario, so the real testing only begins after go-live. Unfortunately, it happens all the time, and it’s painful.

Despite the known risks, there hasn’t been a significant change in how vendors implement CIS projects in years. What we did is invest in building a CIS template based on leading practices from our long experience running utilities’ contact centers. It isn’t just a retrofitted template from the last utility CIS we implemented. It’s a ground-up template that covers the CIS functionality that’s common to all utilities, about 70% of a typical implementation. That means we’re 70% done when we start, instead of designing from scratch or from a whiteboard each time. And it gives us more time to devote to what makes each utility unique.

PAM: How does using a template reduce some of those risks you mentioned? And don’t many cloud-based templates solutions tend to lock you into a rigid, one-size-fits-all solution?

ANDRE: For one thing, we don't need to wait until the solution is built to start the data migration. We can start that upfront, because our data model is sound and well-proven. This means we can let utility employees see the solution earlier and train them incrementally and iteratively rather than trying to cram the month before the go-live.

It’s similar with testing. Core functional testing starts earlier so the implementation team can focus more time and attention on testing features and processes specific to that utility—those carrying the highest risk.

Having a comprehensive template that covers what’s common to all utilities doesn’t lock you into an inflexible, one-size-fits-all cloud CIS. Just the opposite. It frees the utility to focus resources on making the new CIS exactly what they want and need.

PAM: To wrap this up, how does this new approach help utilities improve their customer interactions, which you said is your main goal?

ANDRE: Quite simply, a CIS with rich, accurate data and the latest, easy-to-use functionality means the utility can provide top-notch service to its customers. We lower the risks in implementing a new utility CIS, from data migration all the way through testing, so the utility can make its customers happier.

The Faces of Vertex is a periodic blog post that features employees from different areas of Vertex each month.

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