Beneficial Billing Systems

17 April 2008 (Last Updated April 17th, 2008 18:30)

Mitch Beedie looks at how a capable billing and customer management system can improve business for utility companies.

Beneficial Billing Systems

About five years ago Egni, a small utility supply and management company based in Anglesey, Wales, decided to expand its operations. The company was the UK's longest established biomass energy company, installing large-scale (250kW–5MW) pellet and woodchip boilers. With an increasing demand in the UK for renewable energy sources, the company saw a large gap in the market to supply commercial and domestic consumers.

A major stumbling block at the time, however, was its client management and billing system. The off-the-shelf software relied on Egni's electricity supplier to produce bills for their customers. This had led to chaotic, labour-intensive and error-prone business processes which depended on third parties for success.

Expanding Egni's business would have simply multiplied the existing problems, and Egni decided to sort out its client management and billing systems to give a sound base for the commercial push.

The requirements were initially fairly straightforward, with relatively few customers. However, Egni needed billing software that would allow it to grow rapidly by offering new services to a fast-growing customer base. Based in Wales, it is also one of a growing number of utilities that needs to offer multi-language support.

UK software company Draig worked with Egni to develop a web-enabled utility billing and customer management system. The basic software was installed within a few weeks and the result was utility billing and customer management software that has enabled Egni to develop rapidly and launch new services. Billing is accurate and scalable and independent reviews have identified it as one of the most capable utility billing platforms available in the UK.

THE CUSTOM-BUILT OPTION

Egni had been using off-the-shelf accounting packages and third-party services for invoicing and payment collection. That brought only limited control over the billing process, and the supplier was unable to produce bills reliably for even the relatively small number of customers at the time. It also largely locked Egni into its supplier, which held the customer data.

"Egni needed billing software that would allow it to grow rapidly by offering new services to a fast-growing customer base."

Draig's initial work involved implementing critical improvements, cleaning up historical records and stabilising erratic billing and payment collection processes. Egni now held the customer data, and was able to form its own relationship with its customers.

From supplying only electricity, Egni started to take on water and gas supplies; deregulation in the UK has led many suppliers to offer combined supplies.

The new system helped the company work with the increased number of suppliers that this demanded, and also assisted with calculating climate change levy and carbon management figures for the whole operation.

Draig generally customises its standard draig.infra package to a particular application to shorten development times. The basic infrastructure uses a mix of database, compiled software, XML and other components. This provides a development framework and makes a system scalable, robust and maintainable.

The software allows flexible management of the user interface to suit a range of groups of users. Customers use the system to register, log in and view their accounts. The software provides hierarchical user management and user interface support, with user validation and access rights, and e-mail automation. Importantly for the UK, it handles eGovernment compliance. Users can provide feedback and comments on the system, and also propose improvements. The integration with the billing platform now allows Egni's customers to enter their own meter readings, generate statements, and integrate their accountancy package and BACS payments systems.

The architecture also provides an infrastructure for web applications. It manages meters, tariffs and charges, produces statements and invoices, and manages collecting payments. It also collects the higher-level information needed for financial and supplier management.

MULTILINGUAL SUPPORT

With the increasing recognition of cultural diversity, multiple language support is important for many companies in Europe and elsewhere. Customers would rather be addressed in their own language but most commercially available customer relationship management (CRM) systems in the UK at least do not provide bilingual, or indeed, multilingual support.

Draig's system has a multilingual user interface, with utilities to help maintenance, integrity and translation. Built on Microsoft's CRM, draig.CRM provides five areas of multilingual support: language preference tracking, multilingual data management, multilingual mail merge, address management and a switchable user interface.

"Draig's system has a multilingual user interface, with utilities to help maintenance, integrity and translation."

Even getting letters to customers can be a minefield when there are multilingual addresses, for instance many addresses in Wales have English and Welsh versions.

Although there is a Welsh postcode address file (PAF), integrating this efficiently with the English one can be a major obstacle in bilingual communications. draig.CRM resolves this by integrating the English and Welsh PAFs, with parallel address management.

A user's default language can be configured for example by the URL or by user preference. The preferred language can be one language exclusively, or multilingual. Relevant information is stored multilingually, with automation where possible. Letters and emails can be produced in each language, multiple, or as separate outputs. Draig's To Bach software (which is free for general download) provides the multilingual support, accepting all 56 Welsh characters with diacritic marks.

DRAIG ENABLES EGNI EXPANSION

Egni carried out its expansion with the aid of the new software, and so needed a network of regional offices. To connect these to the network, Draig built a distributed communications infrastructure and IT management services. Since then, Draig's involvement has been at arms length – a reflection on the stability and capability of its system. There is no need for continual maintenance and modifications.

That has left Egni to carry on with its own expansion plans. It is now concentrating on on-site generation of wind, CHP, biomass, solar and geothermal resources, along with other services like energy supply, monitoring/sub metering, biofuel and regulation.