By Bill Perry, Contributor
Things aren’t always as they appear. That was the case for commercial and residential customers of PNM Resources who went to the utility company’s website to request either new gas and electric service or an upgrade to an existing account. From a customer’s perspective, the process appeared to be automated. Behind the scenes, once a customer completed and submitted a form via the website, the system created and sent a PDF to a PNM employee’s email inbox. From that point, a customer service request was completely manual. In January 2017, though, PNM flipped the switch on a transformed process, one that automated the manual work and better meets customer needs.
Making the Case for Automation
Through its regulated utility subsidiaries, PNM Resources serves electricity to more than 760,000 homes and businesses across New Mexico and Texas. Until automating its start-service process, PNM’s manual method regularly created a backlog of requests from contractors, homeowners and business managers that included applications for new service and meter relocation or replacement.
“Our focus as a company is always on safety and the customer experience,” said Patricia Bayon, a senior business analyst for PNM Resources. “But we struggled to meet our service level agreement stating that, barring [a service outage], a customer should have his or her meter upgraded or installed within seven days of request.”
“PNM is not an anomaly,” added Scott Johnson, vice president for Chartwell Inc., a research firm focused on analyzing how utilities interact with customers. “We recently conducted a survey asking utility leaders what their new initiatives were for the year related to starting and stopping service. A number mentioned that they were trying to solve the problem of a lack of automation and getting online forms into their system as an automated process.”
Like PNM, many utilities that Chartwell surveyed lack integration with their start-service systems, so data that customers input doesn’t automatically migrate to a customer information system (CIS). This, said Johnson, creates opportunities for data entry errors and a cascading set of problems.
In PNM’s case, its manual system made it impossible for workers to consistently monitor how well the utility was meeting its service level agreement (SLA) for customers. Although PNM’s customer application system kept the status of a request and the name of the employee to whom the request was sent, PNM updated the information, at most, twice a day. For an update to happen, a PNM employee had to access an entirely different system.
“The sharing of customer data wasn’t timely,” said Bayon. “We wanted to streamline our application process and easily find applications and permits, so any PNM employee involved in the matter could answer a customer’s question.”
One of the biggest technical issues PNM faced was that all customer submissions were coming from a customer-facing web application and there was no validation inside the application to see what was already being worked on, or if an address was incorrect. Sometimes the utility could get two or more submissions for the same request. If, for example, a homeowner wanted to put in a hot tub, they might enter a request and, without knowing, the homeowner’s electrical contractor might do likewise.
The application process entailed two tracks happening in parallel and data extracted from a handful of IT systems, several custom-built, to nudge the customer request along. When a customer or contractor requested a new (or upgraded) service, PNM contacted the relevant local government to review the customer’s property survey and request a permit. Another group of PNM engineers and planners would look at the customer request to make sure the power requirements were acceptable, and if so, they would start an application. The parallel processes created a lot of paperwork. Once the permitting and application process came together, PNM would create a service order to dispatch a crew to install or upgrade the customer’s service. Sometimes the customer was notified that an installer was scheduled, sometimes not. Paper files could get lost, and PNM customers often would have to call the utility to learn the status of their request.
Pleasing customers is doubly important for any utility because a public utilities commission factors in SLAs when considering a utility’s request for a rate increase.
“A lot of IT systems simply are not created to deliver the type of experience customers expect,” said Johnson. “Newer CIS that are coming online are taking this into account. But most customers are setting their expectations for service based on their experience with something like Amazon.”
Developing a New
PNM overhauled its largely manual process with business process management software (BPM) from IBM. To implement the IBM software, PNM chose Austin, Texas-based BP3 Global and its BPLabs installation service and BPM toolkit.
While many utilities work directly with companies like IBM or SAP to install new systems, other companies may choose to work with a system integrator for a variety of reasons, Johnson explained. “Increasingly, utilities and third-party vendors are partnering to meet demands created by the relentless pace of new technology as well as outside pressures such as cybersecurity,” added Johnson.
After a discovery process to identify the as-built situation, BP3 used its Brazos UI toolkit (which is software for shaping the IBM BPM system to meet a user’s preferences) to customize the IBM software and automate PNM’s process.
Among BP3’s first steps was creating a link between the customer request form on PNM’s website via TIBCO Software’s integration tool and the IBM BPM. When a customer makes a service request, the PNM website now triggers the BPM software, which taps a Google Maps API to locate the customer’s address. IBM BPM then pulls information into the customer request form. The BPM system vets the address against a PNM customer database and finds the customer account.
Next, the BPM software automatically creates a work request, which kicks off the permit process in a legacy PNM system. This triggers an inspector’s visit to the job site. After the inspector’s approval, the BPM software finds the application for service created by the PNM engineers and planners to create a service order. BP3 coded the IBM BPM to pair up the application and permit process. Once vetted, the BPM software fires off a work order for a crew. The BPM system then updates the customer’s website request to show when the work will be completed.
Decreased Paperwork, Increased Satisfaction
Since implementing the new software and business practices earlier this year, Bayon said PNM can quantify the number of service orders generated within the published SLA upon receipt of permit, as well as the number of complaints. All this can be sent to the public utility commission. Customer requests are happening faster than before thanks to the new process, and PNM has greatly improved the rate at which it’s meeting its SLA.
“We’ve also eliminated 80 percent of the paperwork related to these service requests,” said Bayon. “And with future enhancements we’ll eliminate 99 percent of the paperwork.”
Most importantly, PNM says it’s receiving positive comments from customers and employees.
Bill Perry has written about technology, manufacturing and the utility industry for nearly 25 years. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and POWERGRID International magazine. He is managing partner of MARCH 24 Media LLC, a media consultancy based in upstate New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.