FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - When Fiona Taylor started working at BC Gas Inc. in Canada four years ago, she and her co-workers had their work cut out for them.
The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company had been struggling to work with its counterparts in Alberta and Ontario to create a shared customer information system (CIS) to handle all three utilities' call centers and billing, said Taylor, director of customer works. But the customized system kept expanding in scope, and costs were going through the roof, she explained.
"It was a spectacular problem for us and left us quite risk-averse," Taylor said. "The CIOlost his job over it."
So BC Gas gave up on working with the other utilities and turned to a packaged software application instead.
Bill Swanton, an analyst at AMR Research Inc. in Boston, said it's very unusual, if not unique, for a utility to buy a packaged CIS. But because of the pressures of deregulation, he added, utilities are looking to save on software development and considering cheaper packaged systems.
At $24 million, the cost of the packaged system that BC Gas chose is only about 25% of what the company could have spent customizing one itself, he said.
And the company expects a return on investment because of cost savings it expects to see in the next four and a half years as a result of the new system.
"All of a sudden, utilities are finding that now they can make more money by being more efficient," explained Swanton. "In the past, they just passed software costs onto ratepayers."
When BC Gas started looking for a CIS software vendor in 1996, its criteria were rigid. The board of directors put a cap of $25 million on the project and set a rollout schedule of two years, Taylor said.
The project managers ruled out using top-tier CISvendors, whose products would have cost more and taken more time to implement.
In 1997, BC Gas entered a partnership with Peace Software Inc. in New Zealand.
The utility chose Peace's system, called Energy, partly because Peace offered guarantees and discounts, but also because Energy had comparative-analysis tools designed to help utilities move toward deregulation.
BC Gas' March 1999 pilot of the Energy system was successful, and the utility installed the system three months ago in its 77-agent call center in Prince George, British Columbia, which handles 250,000 customer accounts.
Customers can now access their account information or change service via the Web, and call center agents have an expanded Web-based database of information at their fingertips.
BC Gas plans to expand the Energy system to all 750,000 of its customers by next spring, when it will deploy the software at a 120-agent call center in Kelowna, British Columbia, according to Taylor.
The system was a bit difficult to implement, in part because it required changes in business practices. But it was worth it.
For example, in the past, if a customer asked for information, either the call center or the billing department would send out a brochure, but neither unit was responsible for tracking that a brochure was sent. Now, the back office sends out brochures from a single location, and the call center tracks all requests, Taylor said.
And agents can now access all customer information on a Web-based browser as soon as a person e-mails or telephones the company. With the new system, agents have seen a 60-second reduction in the average customer call, Taylor said.
"It's been amazingly successful, but I'm waiting every day for the other shoe to fall," she added.