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NSTAR – Serving the customer well

NSTAR, a utility based in Massachusetts with 1.4 million customers, 87% of which are residential consumers, has recently installed a new CRM programme to assist in its mission of serving its customers well. Metering International interviewed Sheila Whitaker, Director of the Customer Interaction Center at NSTAR, to find out more about the groundbreaking system now being used at the utility.

Metering International interviewed Sheila Whitaker, Director of the Customer Interaction Center at NSTAR, to find out more about the groundbreaking system now being used at the utility.

MI: What components make up your CRM system?
SW: Broadly speaking, the components can be divided into three groups.

  1. Interaction Management, which includes telephony integration and management, e-mail management and fax integration and management.
  2. Customer Service Management, which deals with customer creation and customer updates, closed loop customer service request management, and interaction history.
  3. Transactional Capability through Integration, including integration to credits and collections, and integration to the customer information system (CIS).

MI: Please give us a bit more detail on each of these components.
SW: Telephony integration and management involves integration to Avaya G3 through Intel CMS (formerly Dialogic CT Connect) and Edify IVR, to enable screen pops and seamless CRM to telephony integration.

E-mail management enables customer service representatives (CSRs) to interact with customers over e-mail and record interactions in the Interaction History table.

Fax integration and management allows CSRs to interact with customers over a fax server and to record interactions in the Interaction History table.

As far as Customer Creation and Customer Updates are concerned, we believe that our CRM package is the system of reference for customer data. To this end, the CRM package maintains the most up-to-date customer data.

The Closed Loop Customer Service Request Management feature helps NStar deliver customer service in a definitive and repetitive way, from opening service requests to tracking the request to its closure, inclusive of escalations.

The Interaction History tables are a repository of all customer interactions.
Integration to Credits & Collections and to the Customer Information System (CIS) allows integration to legacy back-end systems for transaction management.

MI: What technologies are you using to improve service to customers?
SW: The technologies we use are critical to the success of meeting our goals on a daily basis. Both the applications used by our agents (including the CRM) and the applications that support the management team in their day-to-day oversight of department performance are vital. The following is a list of the technologies we use to ensure that our mission – serving the customer well – is achieved.

NICE Universe
Call Monitoring allows managers to hear and see what the agent is doing; Search Engine allows call recordings to be looked up based on CTI information; Forms Designer allows managers to custom build evaluation forms based on best-practice; Evaluator allows managers to play recordings while filling out evaluation/calibration forms.

Blue Pumpkin
Real-time Agent Adherence allows managers to visually identify agents not adhering to schedule; Forecast allows managers to reference and modify historical call volumes/AHT/Shrinkage and weight them to project future traffic levels; Scheduler allows managers to schedule events and measure their impact on call centre performance.

Avaya ACD
Avaya’s best-in-class product for call centres, augmented with CentreVu Advocate, automatically adjusts call answering algorithms to better meet different service objectives for different call types. Reserve Agent capability automatically includes additional agents if average speed of answer exceeds one of two pre-defined thresholds.

Avaya CentreVu
This is a primary data repository for incoming call traffic and agent answering statistics. This data fuels Blue Pumpkin and additionally is used to produce daily performance reports. It also allows managers to change agent skills on-the-fly.

This technology automatically digitises incoming faxes and makes them attachments to e-mails, removing clutter and improving co-ordination for paper faxes that are unclaimed at the end of the day.

AT&T Call Prompter with advanced features
Choices made in our Main Menu have an MCA – Maximum Calls Allowed – for calls entering the call centre. This eliminates the possibility of being deluged by calls during a system event, especially since outage calls can be routed to our high-volume outage management partner, 21st Century. The QCA – Quick Call Allocator – assists disaster recovery by allowing menu selections to be routed to our alternate call centre location.

21st Century high-volume outage management service
Hosted IVR applications with hundreds of telephone lines allow customers to hear messages specific to their particular outage. They are also able to enter a trouble ticket in our in-house OMS.

Call Center

MI: Why did you choose these technologies?
SW: This repertoire of technology solutions has grown together over time. In order to meet the need for increased efficiency and automation, we have partnered with best-of-breed companies to provide solutions that will allow us to achieve these objectives. We have spent time carefully considering how these systems will integrate into the overall information technology architecture here at NSTAR, and how they will meet our service level and customer satisfaction goals.

MI: How does your call centre fit into your CRM programme?
SW: I see the call centre as the primary customer of NSTAR’s CRM programme. With the implementation of our CRM system this year, we have established the foundation for CRM efforts moving forward. It has created a platform for us to view customers from a customer-centric perspective, as opposed to a premise-based view.

MI: How many services do you offer customers on-line?
SW: Our on-line services continue to evolve as we add new self-service functionality on the web. The following services are available today with front-to-back integration:

  • Create a payment plan
  • Create a budget plan
  • Report a payment
  • Pay by credit card
  • Pay through Checkfree (e-payment available only to those customers having a relationship with Checkfree, a service provider that networks with Fleet Bank for payments)
  • Competitive supplier information request
  • Account access to view your bill.

In addition, services such as application for and discontinuance of service, updated telephone numbers and applications for direct pay, pay by phone, gift certificates and the home heating protection plan are available but require manual intervention by our agents. The experience is still seamless for the customer, however. Although this does not necessarily provide a cost-saving for the company, it does allow us to manage service levels better. We move these enquiries to the web rather than taking a call, which allows us to be more flexible in deciding when to respond to the customer.

We continue to roll out enhancements to our web self-service. Recently we added functionality that allows customers to update telephone numbers and addresses, and in the next year we will add the ability to pay by cheque, as well as application for or discontinuance of service.

MI: What percentage of customers use on-line services?
SW: We have not done any research to identify the percentage of customers who use the web. If there are organisations that have done this, I would be interested to learn how they went about it. We do, however, track the percentage of enquiries that are handled by the web as a percentage of all enquiries. These are 2004 figures.

The percentage of contacts handled by the web (full automation) averages 2.6%, although some months it has been as high as 5%. The figure for contacts handled by the web, including those that require manual intervention internally, is 5.1%. The difference is important – it demonstrates the need to expand our self service and move forward with front-to-back automation. A further 27% of calls is handled through our IVR, which is another self-service channel which customers can use to communicate with us.

MI: Do you anticipate a change to these figures in the next couple of years?
SW: Yes. We have seen the percentage of customers using on-line services increase steadily over the last two years. As we continue to roll out new services and build the front-to-back integration for our self-service functionality, we expect to see more and more customers use this channel of communication with us. In Massachusetts, we have a high percentage of Internet users who increasingly prefer to communicate with service providers over the web. We expect to improve our customer satisfaction by expanding our offerings and increasing the hours during which customers can interact with us. You can go on-line anytime, whereas the call centre hours for most enquiries are 8:30 am to 5 pm.

MI: How many services are available to customers using your call centre?
SW: Our call centre handles all enquiries for residential customers. Through our Integrated Voice Response (IVR) technology, customers select from the following options:

  • Billing
  • Moving (application for service, transfer of service, discontinuance)
  • Credit (customer is in arrears)
  • Emergency (gas odour/leak, electric outage, no heat/hot water).

CSRs collect statistics at a more detailed level after talking to the customer, so these categories can be broken done further.

MI: What percentage of customers use your call centre?
SW: We average approximately 210,000 calls per month, of which just over half are handled manually. The remainder are handled through the IVR, our automated emergency reporting system, and external business partners.

MI: What are the most frequently-asked questions?
SW: In the call centre, most of the calls have to do with billing; next in line is moving house. Roughly speaking, billing represents 26% and moving 17%. Most of the e-mails, on the other hand, are about moves, ranging anywhere from 50% + to as much as 75%.

MI: You have mentioned CTI as a big factor in your CRM programme – please tell us a bit more about what is involved here.
SW: NSTAR uses CTI in a few ways – to fuel customer-based screen pops; expedite calls through our VRU; and to convey the information customers entered in the VRU to customer service reps. Screen pops show all a customer’s accounts and address details, and can be based on CallerID or an entered account number when the CallerID does not result in a unique customer match. The customers who prefer to use our IVR applications no longer have to enter their account numbers if they are recognised based on CallerID, which makes their IVR interactions faster and easier. If a caller prefers to speak with a CSR after an IVR interaction, key information about that interaction is conveyed to the CSR on the Softphone that CSRs now use instead of their traditional telephone set.

NSTAR call volume

NSTAR’s call volume by type 

MI: How many staff are involved in your CRM activities?
SW: Besides administrative and user staff, we have ten resources sustaining the application and implementing user requests such as enhancements.

MI: How have the staff reacted to the new technologies?
SW: The NSTAR CRM system, called Galaxy, went into production at the end of April 2004. Before using the system, CSRs were given 1½ days of training, made up of a combination of e-learning via computer-based simulations and practice in a live environment. After completing the training, the CSRs received three days of ‘Floor Support’ while taking live calls. The Floor Support staff consisted of those CSRs who had served as system testers on the project team, and two area supervisors. The ratio of users to Floor Support staff was 3:1, and the reaction of CSRs has been very favourable.

MI: Overall, has your CRM programme met expectations?
SW: Definitely. The key benefits of this first release include:

  • Reduction in the number of applications a CSR must log into at the beginning of the day.
  • CTI functionality, whereby we eliminated the need to search for accounts or ask the customer for his account number.
  • Single view of the customer record and account information to address simple enquiries, reducing the need to go to back-end systems.
  • Sub-second launch to back-end CIS and credit applications, eliminating the need to toggle between applications to respond to customer enquiries.

The first release of Galaxy is essentially a ‘view only’ version of the system – the initiation of transactional processing within the CIS billing system will not be deployed until the next release. Essentially, the CSR takes the call via the Soft Phone functionality in Galaxy, and then accesses the CIS system by clicking on a button on the Launch Pad screen. This screen includes high-level account information which can be used to answer simple questions. If this is all that’s required, there is no need to launch over to the CIS system.

If the user needs more detailed account information, however, he or she launches to CIS where the account number is auto-populated. This feature was designed to prevent the need for redundant data entry. When the call has been completed, the CSR enters the appropriate wrap-up code and takes the next call in the queue.

The Galaxy team adopted the view-only strategy to ensure that the amount of learning required on the part of the CSRs was manageable. The Soft Phone component is a significant change in itself, and the team wanted to make sure that new users did not feel overwhelmed. In addition, this strategy allowed the team to maximise performance while the complexity level of the system was still relatively moderate.

We attempted to ascertain the CSRs’ perception of how Galaxy affected their work in a post-production user survey. We learned that CSRs like:

  1. The feature that automatically populates customer information onto the form when a customer asks to pay by cheque.
  2. The ability to hyper-link to view the customer’s bill.
  3. The system’s ability to recognise the customer by his telephone number (CTI

Most of the comments, however, referred to the view-only deployment strategy described above. While even in retrospect the team agrees that this was the appropriate way to go, it has raised some issues for the users. Specifically, the CSRs think of the order processing as the “meat” of the call – the action that gives customers what they are looking for. Since this function is still performed in the CIS system, some CSRs view the call opening (screen pop) and closing (wrap-up) as added layers.

It is the role of the change management team to remind the users that once orders can be initiated through Galaxy, the need to access the CIS system will be minimised and there will be additional features in subsequent releases of the system that will actually make order processing easier than in the existing legacy system. Many of these benefits stem from the transition from being premise-based to becoming customer-based.

For example, once a customer is created he is retained in the Galaxy system, regardless of whether or not he has an active account. This is of particular value in the Boston area, where large numbers of student accounts are opened and closed annually. The new system allows the CSRs simply to access the customer, whose data is already stored in Galaxy, and move him to a new address.

Automatic Caller ID

Automatic Caller ID

Updating customer information will also be easier. If a customer has multiple accounts (and there are many landlords in the NSTAR service territory), the CSR updates the information for the customer once, with the option of applying the new information to all of the landlord’s accounts. Using the CIS system, the user had to update each account individually.

MI: What lies ahead?
SW: The Galaxy team initiated a phased approach to the next release of Galaxy functionality. It is with this additional functionality, such as the initiation of order processing, that NSTAR will truly be able to assess the benefits of the new system. In the meantime, the team is working with users to make simple to moderate-level enhancements to the existing system, to increase both user and customer satisfaction.

MI: Thank you for your input.