Utilities are not exempt from the IT consumerization trend that is changing the way people shop for goods and services. The control of energy consumption is shifting from the utility to consumers who want to be full participants in how their accounts are managed. Gone are the days of utility customers expecting nothing more than monthly bills showing their total energy volumes. Today’s educated consumers want to know when their energy was consumed, how it was consumed, and what they can do to lower their cost. And they want all this information in real time, available on demand from the device of their choosing.
To satisfy these expectations, it is essential for utility companies to have accurate customer information and a technology platform that supports and enables real-time customer interaction. For regulated utilities that must adhere to strict billing times and accuracy requirements, this attention to customer records takes on even greater importance.
When Puget Sound Energy (PSE) realized its legacy customer information system (CIS) software wasn’t sufficiently meeting customer expectations or billing requirements, it decided to pursue an upgrade. “We have sophisticated, educated consumers who want to understand and control their energy use; we wanted improved systems that would allow us to interact more intelligently with these customers,” says Aundrea Jackson, Project Manager for PSE’s CIS upgrade.
With a more modern, scalable system, the business could better serve its 1.4 million customers in the Puget Sound region, including in the major Washington cities of Seattle and Tacoma, and the capital city of Olympia. (PSE delivers electric and natural gas services, with 384,000 customers receiving both services.) The upgrade would also position PSE for the expected growth of its customer base; for example, the Puget Sound region population increased 0.7% for the one-year period ending April 2012.1
Finding the Right Conduit
PSE quickly ruled out add-ons, enhancements, or system updates as feasible options. Its main issue was that the legacy CIS system, which it installed in the late 1990s, was developed on an outdated and obsolete platform — one that wouldn’t easily integrate with a platform supporting modern customer communication and curtailed PSE’s ability to proactively meet customer demands. For example, self-service capabilities in the legacy system provided a customer with a static graph displaying three-day-old data, showing little more than total energy consumption. The consumer couldn’t break this data down into usage by hour or zone, compare usage against town or county averages, or tap into an algorithm that calculated how to lower a bill.
“It would have been too costly to try to convert our legacy system to integrate with a modern technology platform,” Jackson says. “That was the driver to abandon our 20-year-old system and start from scratch. We knew that to grow with our customer base in the future, we needed technology of the future as our foundation.”
Another major consideration for PSE as it explored an upgrade was the fact that its legacy system was outsourced. Bringing a new CIS system in house and integrating it with the existing outage management and geospatial systems, which had been standalone, would require building a new infrastructure to co-locate its data center and CIS platform. PSE also required that any new system integrate with its third-party vendors and web platform services.
With these parameters in mind, PSE researched a number of solutions and visited clients that were running various operating systems. Because the business was already an SAP ERP customer, it automatically considered SAP software in the evaluation phase and eventually chose SAP for Utilities solutions for ease of integration with the existing landscape, reporting capabilities, and scalability.
“With the obsolescence of the old system, it was fairly easy to build a benefits case for the implementation to the executive team and board of directors,” Jackson says. “Now, delivering on those benefits and ensuring that we meet all our requirements will be the key to our success.”
“It would have been too costly to try to convert our legacy system to integrate with a modern technology platform. That was the driver to abandon our 20-year-old system and start from scratch. We knew that to grow with our customer base in the future, we needed technology of the future as our foundation.”
— Aundrea Jackson, Project Manager, Puget Sound Energy.
Cleaning Up the Source
The two most important project requirements, according to Jackson, were minimizing impact to the customer and limiting customization of the new system. The goals were to be as close to out-of-the-box SAP functionality as possible and to go live in 18 months. PSE kicked off the project in September 2011 and went live with the technology in April 2013. (PSE is currently in a stabilization phase, which it expects to wrap up by September 2013.)
Because of the fairly aggressive timeline, PSE was deliberate in setting roles and responsibilities within its business, functional, and IT teams. Jackson says that to ensure everyone on the project team was on the same page — she led 147 employees at the project’s peak — a decision was made to have everyone located at the same site. “That decision was one of the best we made because it allowed for knowledge transfer to happen in those functional workstreams,” she says.
The core team was faced with a daunting task in migrating PSE’s outsourced customer data. Because the system lacked the archiving functionality to handle the data PSE was generating, there was voluminous obsolete and inaccurate data from either retired accounts or accounts with updated customer records. Meters presented another challenge. Except for energy consumption data from the meter reads, which are siloed in a separate data warehouse, PSE had to match each customer account with a corresponding meter number. With limited cleansing or deletion activity prior to the implementation, however, the project team discovered roughly 500,000 instances of a meter without recent activity that hadn’t been removed from the system.
“That was only one data element with obsolete information and no archiving strategy; think of the number of data elements that go into a customer record in a utility bill,” Jackson says. “We had large obstacles and decisions to make about what data to move over. Data migration was clearly a larger effort than we anticipated.”
Because PSE would have to manually cleanse this data, its 147-person team was overwhelmed and needed more manpower to tackle the project. About one year into the project, during initial testing, PSE still only had about 10% of its original data migrated into the new system, roughly 40% less than its target goal. At that point, PSE decided to bring on a partner and hired BackOffice Associates to help assess and cleanse the data.
Following PSE’s migration criteria, the automated solutions from BackOffice, coupled with SAP Data Services, significantly lessened the manual effort by scrubbing out anomalies and old data. BackOffice also helped with the transition to the new CIS platform because its consultants knew how legacy data would function in the SAP environment. “This ability to know what the legacy data would look like in the new environment helped us make decisions on the front end and avoid having to go back and manually clean up after the migration,” Jackson says. “This was eye-opening for all of us on the project and helped us get a handle on how large our problem was.”
Flipping the Switch
Once the team completed the bulk of the migration work, it started parallel testing and user training in January 2013, paying particularly close attention to billing, which was targeted as the first set of business processes to utilize the new CIS system. According to Jackson, user acceptance was fairly painless. “It was all upside,” she says. “In our legacy system, users had to be experts on the tools and the processes. For new hires, it was six weeks of training on basic functionality. So by comparison, this system generated a lot of excitement and anticipation.”
For end users in the Customer Contact Center who work directly with customers, Jackson said it took just a few weeks for everyone to familiarize themselves with the system, or more precisely, with all the new billing data that was now available. For back-end users interacting with data interfacing with SAP ERP Financials, however, acclimation took a bit longer.
To ease the transition, PSE converted a conference room into a sandbox environment with a dedicated trainer, and made this available after hours for anyone needing help. “Most of the difficulty was resolved by breaking users out of bad habits that the old legacy system had helped create,” Jackson says. “We provided the opportunity for repetition in drill-type formats, for example, creating drills for move-ins or move-outs to help users reinforce their knowledge.”
PSE expects to turn on most of the customer-facing functionality — such as self-service capabilities and mobility features — by the end of 2013. Strictly from a billing standpoint, the transition to the new CIS system has already paid dividends. The biggest post-go-live benefit, according to Jackson, was the ability for PSE to fully automate billing for its large commercial accounts, whereas those processes were mostly done manually before. That automation wasn’t the only immediate benefit, though.
“We’ve reduced our financial close from 7-10 days to about four days,” Jackson says. “Even just a month after go-live, the ability to have reporting tools in place has been significant. Users with access to these reports are starting to interact with the data in the business in ways that weren’t possible before without having to write a query, and even then, there were a limited number of queries.”
While end users are the chief beneficiaries of the new system, at least initially, PSE has positioned its information delivery pipelines to allow for free-flowing accurate consumer data into the hands of the customers who expect it. “We never lost sight that the priority was to help us interact, educate, and provide information to our customers in a simple, easy, straightforward manner,” says Jackson. “That ability to educate customers on their usage and efficiency needs to be a simple, one-stop shop, and this system provides us with the platform to do that.”
1 Puget Sound Regional Council, “Puget Sound Trends” (October 2012; www.psrc.org/assets/2782/trend-d3.pdf). [back]