Coping with outages

FRAMINGHAM (10/02/2003) - Nstar, the largest investor-owned utility in Massachusetts, hopes two IT projects will help it achieve a very aggressive goal: to boost its customer-service rankings into the top 25 percent of Eastern U.S. power providers over the next five years, says CIO Eugene Zimon.

That's pretty heady stuff, considering that Boston-based NStar was ranked last among 15 Eastern utilities in residential customer satisfaction this year, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2003 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Index Study. The study rates power quality and reliability, company image, price and value, billing and payment, and customer service.

NStar has made improvements in some of these areas. Last year, customer outage hours were slashed by 35 percent, and the length of outages was reduced by 27 percent, according to the company's 2002 annual report. And by year's end, NStar's 200-plus call center representatives were answering nearly 90 percent of all customer calls in 30 seconds or less -- a 25 percent improvement over 2001.

The utility company implemented a fuel-cost adjustment on Sept. 1 that should lower the average electric bill for Boston-area residential customers by about US$4.50 per month. In addition, NStar was the only utility in Massachusetts to achieve the service-quality goals set by the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, thereby avoiding any financial penalties.

NStar customers have noticed the positive changes. While NStar hasn't yet improved in its relative ranking, it did increase its score in the 2003 study by J.D. Power by five points (on a scale of 60 to 130) compared with the 2002 survey.

Now the company is pushing hard on two IT projects aimed at further enhancing customer service: the installation of a new CRM system (see sidebar) and an upgrade of its outage management system.

The latter effort involves an upgrade of software from M3i Systems Inc. in Longueuil, Quebec. NStar executives expect the system to help the company improve its analysis of and response to outages.

NStar began rolling out the upgraded M3i system in April. In June, the company extended it with improved messaging capabilities at call centers to give customers more detailed information about the expected length of outages. Now NStar is focusing on the third phase of the upgrade, which adds a graphical front end that plots customer outage calls on a graphical representation of the company's electricity distribution network. It will also identify the utility equipment that's the most likely cause of an outage.

Using algorithms that are built into the software, NStar engineers will be able to analyze more quickly the causes of and relationships between power outages, as well as calculate how long a particular outage is expected to last and identify which customers are affected. Previously, dispatchers had to review a list of outages on a tabular or spreadsheet-type screen.

The previous version of the M3i system relied on rules-based systems to help engineers analyze the potential causes of outages and determine how quickly they could be repaired. "But that model breaks down in a high-volume situation -- like during a major snowstorm -- since work on switches and transmitters constantly changes," Zimon says.

Once NStar finishes testing the electronic plotting capabilities this fall and puts the system into production early next year, engineers will be able to draw a polygon around, say, 10 outages "and evaluate how they might be related to each other," says Peter Dion, manager of systems support at NStar.

Also next year, customers will be able to use an interactive voice-response system to find out the cause, status and estimated time of restoration for an outage, Zimon says.

Zimon and Dion declined to say how much money NStar has invested in the outage management system upgrade. But it's expected to deliver several key benefits, such as allowing for a better assessment of the cause of an outage, which in turn enables faster and more accurate dispatching of repair crews. Plus, the system is expected to free up the dozen or so dispatchers who work during a typical day shift so they can spend more time analyzing the causes of outages and determine how best to correct them.

During storm conditions, when multiple outages occur more frequently, Dion said he expects that the new system may help NStar respond to power interruptions up to 20 percent faster.

There are several techniques that electric companies use to pinpoint the sources of failures. Some companies have integrated geographic information systems with customer reports of outages and linked that information with their network diagrams, says Jill Feblowitz, an analyst at AMR Research Inc.

Rick Nicholson, an energy industry analyst at Meta Group Inc., says NStar "is doing some very smart things to address the outage issue, but they are probably not unique" in plotting outage calls electronically.

Nevertheless, NStar executives are excited about the potential effect the system will have on improving customer service.

"We're setting a standard here," says Zimon. "This is designed to work in both a high-volume (outage) and sunny-day situation."


Energizing Call Centers

NStar is in the final stages of installing an Oracle CRM system to improve customer service, regardless of what channel a customer uses to contact the power company. The browser-based system uses computer/telephony integration (CTI) technology to allow NStar's 200-plus call center representatives to respond to customers who call in, use e-mail, fax or visit the company's Web site.

The Oracle software, which will serve as a front end to multiple back-end systems, is being phased in through year's end and will run on two Unix-based Sun Fire servers from Sun Microsystems Inc. It will provide NStar with capabilities not currently offered through its mainframe-based customer information system (CIS), including the ability to view customers on a total account basis rather than by meter or address, says CIO Eugene Zimon.

The CRM system was customized by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. The Oracle software is being installed by Bangalore, India-based Wipro Ltd., which is doing the customization work in India and the implementation in Westwood, Mass.

The CTI technology is expected to help NStar reduce the average time it takes to handle a call by 15 to 30 seconds per call, says Penni Conner, vice president of customer care at the company. In addition, training call center agents to use the new system is expected to take just 18 hours, compared with three or four weeks on the CIS system.

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