More than a Utility Billing System: How a Customer Information System Can Excel

Introduction

Modern integrations and customer expectations have redefined the role a customer information system (CIS) needs to play for a utility. Like every industry, utilities have seen rapid technological advancements influence user expectations, both internal and external. 

There are many places online to find information about CIS features that support utilities, but this is a one-stop shop for everything you need to know about utility billing systems. 

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Chapter 1

What is a utility billing system?

A utility billing system refers to the software utilities use to process daily meter-to-cash operations, record all customer data, and conduct periodic billing for sewage, gas, electric, and water providers. Utility billing software supports customer service transactions, accepts meter readings, calculates and produces invoices for utility usage, manages account receivables, tracks service requests, and more.

The Historical Role of Utility Billing Systems

In the past, utilities used their billing systems for collection and billing purposes. This included everything from storing customer information, rates, and usage data to maintaining the necessary information for customer bills. These systems had limited capabilities and were often custom designed and built in-house, making them inflexible and unscalable. 

The tasks these systems could not perform defined them as much as those they could. Customer data that wasn’t central to billing—work orders, past outages, customer interaction histories—lived in siloed systems, dedicated to specialized functions within the utility. Like the proverbial three blind men who reach different conclusions about the elephant, no single utility business unit had full insight into the customer journey, resulting in disjointed customer experiences and operational inefficiencies.

To be sure, many technologies that underpin modern customer information systems—like cloud computing and inter-platform data-sharing—weren’t possible when these utility billing systems were launched. Some utilities have since updated their billing and service processes to be part of a modern CIS infrastructure, but the data silos that add cost and complexity to the meter-to-cash process still exist.

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The Current Role of Utility Billing Systems

Cloud computing has helped utilities redefine their old billing processes by extending the role of utility customer information systems beyond billing and collection functions. Functions not handled directly within the CIS—payment processing, customer self-service, communications, field tech dispatch, and so on—are nevertheless augmented by data from the CIS. In turn, the CIS becomes much more valuable from the integration with those other systems.

Modern utility billing systems reduce cost-to-serve and streamline the meter-to-cash process, whether by automating customer communications, empowering customer service representatives with rules-driven transactions, or avoiding incorrect customer shut-offs and charges. They integrate in real time with other informational (e.g., customer self-service) and operational (e.g., outage management) systems. 

Utility customer service representatives can then spend more time building customer trust and resolving complex account issues. These systems also reduce bad debt and enable rules-driven collections processes, making self-payment easier, reducing days sales outstanding, and increasing organizational cash flow.

 

 

Chapter 2

Why are utilities rethinking their billing systems?

The drive to rethink billing systems comes from increased customer expectations and a desire for enhanced operational efficiency.

Utility Goals

Solutions to Shortcomings

In many cases, utilities consider a new billing system when something isn’t working anymore. This could be anything from improving customer satisfaction to lowering debt to enhancing bill management. Often, utilities haven’t upgraded the capabilities of the system over time. Whatever the pain points, an interest in improving multiple business capabilities is often the catalyst. 

Segmentation

Service is more meaningful when a utility can recognize and understand customers and their needs in a personalized way. Segmentation allows the utility to see a customer’s line of service and the best way to serve them within seconds of any communication.

Efficiency

From fielding customer questions to managing the workforce, utilities need a streamlined solution that solves inefficiencies and enhances what is already working.

Security

There is no doubt that technology can improve a utility’s processes and productivity, but concerns about security are always looming. Will introducing a new system mean more opportunities for a breach? Will my customer data be safe on a new platform or in the cloud? Rethinking a billing system often brings security to the forefront.

Customer Expectations

Online and Mobile Self-Service

More U.S. adults are turning to the convenience of paying bills digitally. Online payments make up 58 percent of one-time payments and 68 percent of recurring payments. A utility billing system that offers flexible self-service options and convenience is crucial for a better customer experience. 

Customers want the ability to manage their service accounts from a computer, laptop, or mobile device. Utilities must accommodate this demand, allowing patrons to pay their bills, view their consumption history, and receive essential information in one convenient location. 

Personalized Service

A cloud-based utility billing system can provide better customer service by effectively segmenting the community it serves using factors such as age, location, type (e.g., business or residential), and needs. With segmenting, you can send discounts, special programs, promotions, and more to the appropriate customers via email, text message, or flyer.

Chapter 3

What are the trends in utility billing systems?

Many technological trends influence the way utilities view billing systems. Below are some modern expectations that have impacted the capabilities and advancements of utility billing systems.

Cloud vs. On-Premises

Historically, utilities wanted to be their own data center, hosting and housing all the information gathered within their four walls. Although this might have provided a sense of security, it stunted growth opportunities and created liabilities when issues arose. As more people become comfortable with cloud-based solutions, their willingness to make the move increases. One of the clearest benefits of a cloud-based CIS is the ability to solve system issues and update software with ease.

Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) vs. Operating Expenses (OPEX)

Financial flexibility in utility payments has not always been possible. Historically, a CAPEX payment model has been preferred in the utility industry. This model means a greater need for regulator buy-in if changes and updates are needed, meaning less flexibility in technology and support growth. With more software-as-a-service (SaaS) models being adapted by utilities, OPEX pricing structures are now possible and lead to more flexibility throughout all processes. 

Chapter 4

What are the components of an effective cloud-based utility billing system?

Cloud-based utility billing systems aren’t just payment processors. Although utilities have long done more with their billing systems, the value of these systems has only increased as technology has advanced. 

Let’s take a look at some of the processes this utility powerhouse conducts:

1. Bill Printing and Payments

At a basic level, a utility billing system generates bills and processes payments. 

Additionally, an effective cloud-based billing system can:

  • Reduce risks in the supply chain.
  • Optimize channel efficiencies using a single vendor who assumes responsibility for end-to-end services.
  • Keep utility data compliant with secure, PCI-certified data centers.
  • Offer one point of contact for bill production, payment processing, and customer self-service.

2. Customer Information System (CIS)

Cloud-based customer information systems aren’t new technology, but the unique needs of a utility’s CIS are not understood by every provider. 

With a utility-specific CIS, you get a system that:

  • Tracks and manages customers.
  • Oversees customer billing.
  • Manages all business procedures.
  • Translates rate structures.

Additionally, a CIS suited for a utility’s unique needs remains customizable and stays ahead of the curve on upgrades and maintenance without creating costly downtime. A CIS that truly supports a utility should provide integration platform-as-a-service (IPaaS) features. This means that all the systems a provider needs to work effectively are integrated within the CIS and can be monitored—and often managed—in the platform.

3. Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)

Metering infrastructure is crucial to modern utilities. Advanced leak alerts and automatic notifications are as much a benefit to customers as they are to the providing utility. 

This metering infrastructure:

  • Enables real-time access to consumption data for utility staff and customers.
  • Provides hourly interval data.
  • Eliminates the need for manual meter readings by using digital meters.
  • Provides physical control over meters (can vary by utility).
  • Gives utilities fast and efficient customer service functionality.
  • Maintains user-friendly, client-facing abilities that increase engagement.
  • Interprets data using applications that communicate with one another.

4. Digital Customer Engagement (DCE)

Customers expect the ability to manage their accounts online or on mobile devices. Clear access to documentation and simple communication leads to better customer service and encourages engagement. 

When it comes to the customer experience, cloud-based utility billing:

  • Lowers the cost to serve with automated communications, self-service tools, and digital conversion of customers.
  • Identifies new efficiencies with automation instead of manual, error-prone tasks.
  • Improves customer satisfaction with better service and faster responses to inquiries.
  • Reduces debt and improves collections by letting customers view and pay their bills 24/7.
  • Influences desired customer behaviors using targeted marketing based on account information.
  • Manages the content of customer communications (e.g., emails and SMS).
  • Identifies who needs to receive communications and when. 
  • Archives customer communications, documents, images, and audio files.
  • Allows customers to manage bills, schedule payments, and view payment options.

5. Mobile Workforce Management (MWM)

Cloud-based technology is synonymous with fast internal communications, improved update timelines, and efficient implementation. Mobile workforce management (MWM) integrates with the CIS and allows a utility dispatch team to easily interact with technicians in the field. It centralizes and optimizes scheduling and provides the insights your workforce needs to do their job right the first time. 

A cloud-based MWM:

  • Lowers costs by eliminating paper-based tickets.
  • Helps with change management.
  • Eliminates duplicate data entry.
  • Ensures customer support, dispatch, and field techs have the latest information on what work needs to be completed.
  • Connects data to the customer payment system so that the field service system doesn’t disconnect active customer accounts.
  • Provides dispatch alerts and customer notifications.
  • Integrates with navigation and GPS solutions.
  • Offers calendar, voice, audio, and mobile camera integration.
  • Includes interfaces with timesheet and inventory management.
  • Reduces costs with automated communications, self-service tools, and digital conversion of customers.
  • Ensures that the right people have access to correct information.
  • Uses role-based permissions to support different departmental needs and avoid account mistakes.
  • Recognizes both front-office and back-office customer service needs—the front office receives incoming calls regarding service, whereas the back office handles complex issues, dispatches calls, and so on. 

Chapter 5

How can utility tech platforms better integrate with billing systems?

Support Geographic Information Systems 

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced data using unique information attached to a specific location. A GIS must solve various utility challenges and include tools to leverage digital maps. 

A GIS should have the ability to: 

  • Maintain distribution infrastructure.
  • Identify and locate certain assets.
  • Pinpoint any potential issues, such as a transformer showing voltage in a range that’s too low or high.
  • Geotag assets.

When a utility CIS supports a GIS, it creates a deeper understanding of assets and their usage. Think of the GIS as a control system that maintains the distribution of the utility being managed. Because the CIS is the central point at which the utility and customer intersect, having a GIS that communicates issues means more insight into when things are going wrong, where the issues are, and how they could be addressed.

utility technology integration

Integrate with Meter Data Management

Meter data management (MDM) collects utility use readings, finds the meaning behind the gathered data, and communicates those findings to pinpoint issues. When this type of intelligence is gathered and fed back into the CIS, utilities and their customers can better detect and counteract usage issues, saving resources and money.

Chapter 6

What’s the difference between AMI and AMR?

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) can perform essential functions that once had to be performed manually, such as measuring electricity use, connecting and disconnecting service, detecting tampering, identifying and isolating outages, and monitoring voltage. It also offers utilities greater insight into interval reads, opening the door for more accurate billing and predictive analytics.

Automated meter reading (AMR) is a great stepping stone that utilities use to automatically collect consumption and status data from meters. After this information is gathered, it is sent to a database so utilities can analyze use, solve problems, and produce bills based on consumption, instead of making estimates based on manual bi-monthly or quarterly readings.

AMR provides fewer features and may be ideal for utilities hoping to make incremental improvements, whereas AMI is well-suited for data-driven providers.

Additionally, AMI uses two-way communication to gather data, whereas AMR collects at regular intervals and cannot stop services. 

The Advantages of Remote Meter Reading and Meter Data Management

Remote meter reading saves time and resources for utility providers. Previously, meters required physical readings, but smart meters can track consumer usage remotely. Once collected, this data is transmitted by a device that uses radio frequencies from nearby cellular or radio towers. Then, the information is received by the utility billing system, and the MDM system collects the readings and flags any issues or inconsistencies. MDM is commonly used by electric and gas utilities. 

Remote meter reading provides: 

  • Greater accuracy when measuring usage, resulting in more accurate billing.
  • Reduced labor costs from manual truck rolls.
  • Prompt and efficient dispatch of repair crews for service requests.
  • Faster service restoration after outages.
  • Automated alerts and status updates for the utility, field technicians, and customers.

In addition to remote meter readings, MDM improves AMI processes for electricity utilities by centralizing metering information from multiple systems. Electric utilities cover large service areas, requiring different technology depending on their location. 

Electric MDM providers have added tools to clean and process large volumes of incoming metering data. This process is known as validation, estimation, and editing (VEE). VEE flags any data anomalies and records them for further analysis or remediation. When utilities receive meter readings, they can validate a customer’s usage and use previous readings to estimate the current bill.

 

 

Chapter 7

What are the challenges utility providers face when implementing new billing solutions?

In the past, utilities addressed a single customer pain point at a time, hindering any positive progress. They weren’t invested in fundamentally improving billing methods. Now, cloud-based solution providers like VertexOne can customize a utility's billing options by observing what works and what doesn't."

Although the needs of each utility are unique depending on location, community, and other factors, any utility searching for a new billing solution must consider the following potential issues: 

Lack of Future-Proofing 

We have seen many advancements in technology and watched user expectations rise with them. Unfortunately, in many cases, utilities cannot implement full-scale changes. When implementing a new billing solution, utilities should bear in mind that an on-premises or traditional proprietary system could create future barriers to updates and add stress to internal IT teams.

Lack of Scalability and Efficiency

Gas, water, and electric utilities face compliance challenges and must support complex rates systems. Their billing systems must handle these demands while also processing calls and assisting with customer requests. The ability to accommodate new customer accounts and expectations is vital. 

utility-billing-1

Lack of Flexibility and Customization

Utilities can miss productivity enhancements when looking for a single solution to a single problem. Utilities examining potential billing systems must holistically consider their processes and procedures to make true improvements. That means challenging a vendor who provides a system with features that cannot be customized and considering the benefits of software that grows with trends and advancements in the industry.


Rigidity:
Utilities must have the ability to make current and future updates as the landscape changes. How easy is it to upgrade the billing system's infrastructure and network capacity? The right system must support growth without complex infrastructure needs. 

 

DIY: Although creating your own billing solution may seem like an economical decision, most utilities underestimate the complexity of creating a system, failing to account for the necessary time, support, and experience. Working with a partner like VertexOne can save valuable time and resources, with the product finished in one year or less. 

 

 

Chapter 8

Is your utility ready to move from a billing system to a modern customer information system?

Two major factors are driving the current change in utility billing systems: 

  • The ability to move data between systems via integration.
  • The rise in customer expectations. Customers want the same convenient experiences across all online activities, from shopping to banking to paying their monthly utility bills. 

As more utility providers turn to cloud-based solutions, many face challenges. After utilizing the same system for the past few decades, they are unsure how to implement a new one. 

However, changes in customer demands mean utilities must “keep up.” Failing to do so can lead to increased churn, complaints, and more. VertexOne partners with utilities and municipalities to deliver world-class software and services, including CIS, digital customer engagement, MWM, and more. Contact us today to get started. 

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