Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Accordingly, a 'genius' is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.
- Thomas Edison
Service Levels Changing as Customer Service enters the Cloud

A few months ago, I had the pleasure to attend EUCI’s seventh annual Customer Information Systems (CIS) for Utilities event in Washington DC.  Hosted by Exelon, the event brought together small to large utilities delivering multiple commodities from electric to gas to water.  One of my favorite sessions at this event is the open vendor panel discussion with multiple vendors taking questions from the utilities in the audience on the state of customer service in the utility industry and where it may be heading.  A question late in the panel grabbed my attention as it pertained to service levels and how they may have changed from in-house to cloud operations.

The vendor panel consisted of AAC Utility Partners, Vertex Business Solutions, Oracle Utilities, and West Monroe Partners, and it was moderated by yours truly.  Now you know why it’s one of my favorites.  Every year I try, to no avail, to get a “chair throwing” argument reminiscent of the Jerry Springer talk show fight that made chair throwing famous!  Over the years, I have not been successful in getting SAP and Oracle to fight, in getting small CIS vendors like Itineris to fight with behemoth Oracle, or getting in-house license providers to fight with software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers such as Vertex One.  Therefore, I have relegated the questions to the audience, and it has been quite an evolution as the audience, consisting of many utilities, asks the vendors and consultants, some very good, pointed questions.  The one that came as we were about to break for a cocktail reception pertained to service levels in utility customer service and if those service levels had changed as the industry experiences a move towards cloud-based, or outsourced, solutions.        

This question not only resonated with the vendors and consultants, but it also got me going as I have been tracking service levels and service level agreements (SLAs) over the years.  About 15 years ago, post Y2K, many utilities had just replaced their CIS and were running in-house licenses.  The CIS’ that were outsourced were focused mainly on the unregulated retailers in states or provinces that had deregulated in North America.  There was an emphasis put on quality of bills produced.  This meant checking the bills for errors.  If the CIS was operated in-house, this was known as quality control where a specific group would randomly pull bills from each billing cycle and check them for accuracy.  If the CIS was outsourced, a similar process would take place, although it would be called a contractual service level.  The target would be somewhere greater than 95% accuracy with most around 99% accuracy.  For those that had outsourced, there would be additional service levels like on-time billing, summary billing timeliness, accurate meter-reading, usage sent to distributors or retailers (for unregulated market participants), exception resolution, estimated accounts, and no-bills. 

Post Y2K, the industry did not have a “cloud” per-se, instead it had “outsourced services.” Today, with the arrival of the “cloud,” many utilities, regardless of the regulated aspect of the market they operate in, are entertaining cloud services.  These can range from what was previously outsourced services such as billing, contact center, print, payment processing, etc. to true new cloud services such as storage, application hosting, and customer relationship management (CRM).  These new cloud services come with a new set of service levels.  Storage and application hosting come with service levels such as up-time, disaster recovery, and update windows.  For those of us with smartphones, how many times are your apps updated?  Much more than we’d like to be sure.  In a new application hosting cloud environment, it is critical when the apps are updated.  For instance, the ability to hold off on app updating during storm outages or peak times such as light up season for gas utilities or heat waves for electric utilities.   For the CRM, customer satisfaction and first contact resolution are increasing in importance.  Some cloud-based CRM providers are also beginning to track channel shift where the goal is to move customers from more expensive channels like a physical phone call to a less expensive channel such as a smartphone app or increased IVR containment (keeping the customer in the IVR to resolve an issue rather than speaking with an agent).

One fact that the panelists all agreed on was that utilities with sourced operations have more service level tracking and accountability than those with in-house operations.  This is not to downplay in-house operations, it is just a fact that sourced operations have contractual obligations to serve at specific service levels, and there may be ramifications for missing those service levels.  With the increased adoption of cloud-based services comes new service levels as we interact with customers via differing channels.   


Jon Brock is President of utility and energy advisor Desert Sky Group, LLC.  He can be reached at

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