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Utilities Brace for Unexpected Shocks to the System

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Solving unanticipated utility accounting and customer service challenges not covered by existing ERP systems

Although utility companies handle routine business with complex Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, they are often confronted with unexpected legislation, social or financial demands.  When this occurs, it can require swift changes to accounting and customer service procedures, as well as the processing of many thousands or even millions of customers to stay in compliance.

Whether utilities must suddenly accommodate Smart Meter opt-outs, Medical Baseline mandates, energy savings assistance, solar credits or LED customer upgrades, the required changes can be quite a shock to the system.

In such cases, comprehensive and accurate case management is required, whether by standard customer service document request or state Public Utilities Commission mandated programs.  But this is often cumbersome to manage, particularly when applications can be submitted by hard copy, email, website, inter-company transfer, or other means.  Moreover, the tedious process of determining qualified applicants usually requires document approvals, signature pages, and verification.

As such, the primary challenge for utility companies is to effectively manage, document, and centralize an influx of new, inbound applications, as well as verify if applicants qualify for certain programs.  Archiving of critical documents such as signed applications, change of address, complaints, bankruptcy claims, and power of attorney is often required.  Proof of compliance is required by the PUC, other agencies, and auditors, as well as for legal protection.

Still when unexpected challenges arise, utilities have no choice but to deal with them.  This leaves utilities with limited and often unpalatable options.  The first is to throw labor at the problem.  But hiring new employees and setting up call centers only raises operating costs and does little to handle the next shock to the system.

The other option is to pay existing ERP or CRM providers to add on new modules or programming to accommodate the required changes.  However, this is often an even more costly approach that can take many months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement.  Since this approach only addresses the challenge at hand, additional costs are required the next time the utility faces an unforeseen challenge.

This leaves utilities looking for a solution that works with an existing ERP system to manage new “islands” of data much more quickly and at less cost.  Fortunately, there are electronic document management solutions designed to address just such a scenario that are already being used by major utilities.

Shocks to the System

Utility companies can require a fast response to market changes for a variety of reasons that create accounting or customer service challenges:

When Smart Meter opt outs became necessary due to consumer privacy concerns, by PUC mandate, one major energy utility had to give customers the ability to opt out within a 30-day timeframe.  The utility not only had to manage a variety of forms, but also note that certain existing analog meters must not be changed or schedule crews to replace the Smart Meters with analog meters if consumers opted out. 

In another example, when a Medical Baseline law mandated that utilities must not turn off consumers’ power if they require life saving machines even with unpaid bills, the implementation had to be flawless to prevent potential litigation.  Documenting their efforts to reach consumers by a variety of methods such as phone, mail, email, and text was required for compliance.

State mandated Energy Savings Assistance programs can also require utilities to offer low-income customers a discounted utility rate based on a set of income criteria that must be verified.

In states and municipalities that mandate solar credits, the move to alternative energy can overwhelm both accounting and customer service with rooftop solar compatibility, charge back solar credit issues, and the like.

Faster, Cheaper Compliance

The ideal process for responding to a utility market change that requires a fast response would be to collectively gather all the different document types into a centralized platform.  The electronic document management solution would be flexible enough to import from multiple sources and create a workflow system that allows individual departments to easily follow documents wherever they go – for better management, control, service level tracking, and compliance.

Fortunately, the advent of secure Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions, tailored to the utility’s unique workflow requirements, is allowing seamless function with existing ERP and CRM systems.

One example, for instance, of this streamlined, workflow-based strategy is a cloud-based, electronic document management solution called Kern EDGE, by Kern, Inc., a document output management company that services companies nationally, including one-third of Silicon Valley’s largest companies.

Because the software suite is offered as SaaS and usable by anyone with a browser, it does not require any capital investment, requires minimal IT attention, can be connected to existing ERP or CRM solutions, and can go from concept to implementation in less than a month.

In order to streamline utility companies’ handling of abrupt marketplace shocks, Kern tailors the EDGE software suite to work seamlessly within the framework of each utility’s workflow and applications.  This includes archiving and indexing all documents, so they are easily searchable with time stamps for every step of the process.

To ensure the software suite suits the utility company’s workflow, Kern consults with the utility to understand the process, anticipate the flow of information, as well as identify and satisfy any existing business rules.  A flow chart is created and approved and a proof of concept delivered in as little as a week.  This workflow can later be modified if slight changes are required. 

Unlike complex ERP software that must be programmed, the software suite is quickly adaptable to business process requirements, such as adding new offices, user groups, required authorizations, and government regulations.  This flexibility is designed into the system because it is easily configured into an existing software engine as definable parameters, rather than programmed from scratch.

While the electronic document management software suite costs a fraction of ERP reprogramming and implementation, it is very secure, with built in redundancies and backup power from Tier IV data centers. Unlike most SaaS, Kern EDGE is not priced on a per-seat basis, but rather on the complexity of the project and amount of data involved.

For utility companies that must brace themselves for continual, unexpected market changes, the bottom line is that such cloud-based SaaS solutions will allow them to nimbly adapt and remain compliant at a fraction of the time and cost.

For more info, visit or write to Kern, Inc. at 3940 Gantz Road, Suite A, Grove City, OH 43123-4845, U.S.A.

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