Are you considering automating your field force?

 

Field force automation and mobile service orders are two huge buzzwords in the utility billing software arena these days. Are you considering equipping your field service technicians with mobile devices and automating your service order process?

If so, this issue takes a look at the process and examines some things you should know before moving forward.

Steps in the process

The process of automating service orders in the field involves three steps:

  • Dispatching
  • Completing in the field
  • Updating in the office

Dispatching is the process of transmitting a service order (or a group of service orders) electronically to a technician in the field. Think of it as the automated replacement of your field service staff coming into the office to pick up paper service orders and distributing them to the appropriate technician.

Completing a service order in the field is the electronic equivalent of writing the results on the paper service order. This includes any meter readings, comments, the date and time completed and who completed the service order.

Updating an electronic service order in the office is not unlike updating a paper service order. The big difference is the customer service clerk doesn’t have to read the technician’s handwriting and key everything in – it’s already in the system from what was entered in the field. All the customer service clerk needs to do is verify the readings are valid and check for anything that could cause a billing error.

Who provides the solution?

When selecting a mobile system to automate your field force, there are three sources of systems to be considered:

  • Billing software vendor
  • GIS vendor
  • Third party

If your billing software vendor offers an option for mobile service orders, it should, hopefully, be fully integrated with your billing software. This means it should be easy to implement.

A solution provided by your GIS vendor should have a strong interface to your GIS system, allowing your field staff to see maps in the field. Your billing system vendor may or may not have an interface to a system from your GIS vendor.

Third party solutions, by virtue of the fact they are designed and developed to operate by themselves, may have the best user interface of the three alternatives. However, they are also the most difficult to integrate with your billing system. Third party solutions are the best option for billing systems that offer no other way to implement field force automation.

What technology to use?

Apple, Android, Windows…? Tablet, laptop, phone…? With so many choices available, how do you know what technology to use? For starters, the hardware platform has to be compatible with the software application. Don’t go buy hardware before deciding on a software solution!

If you already provide a mobile platform for your field service technicians, and that platform is compatible with the software you choose, you’re in business! If not, you might have to purchase new mobile hardware for your field service staff.

Is your field service staff currently automated? Please take a moment to complete this quick poll indicating what technology you employ in the field.

Gift card winners

As posted in a previous issue, here are the winners of the two $50.00 Visa gift cards:

  • New subscriber – Trisha Flynn, West Knox Utility District, Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Referring a new subscriber – Crystal French, Craven County Water Department, New Bern, North Carolina

Are you considering automating your field force?

Are you considering implementing a mobile service order solution and wondering how to get started? To find out, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how you could benefit from a business review.

 

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

How do you handle temporarily inactive accounts?

I had a Town Manager who attended my recent presentation at the North Carolina Rural Water Association Annual Conference contact me with a question. He wanted to know what I recommended regarding billing for temporarily inactive accounts.

Snowbirds

If you have seasonal customers, you know the issue he was inquiring about – snowbirds from colder climates who go south for the winter (or, conversely, winter homes in warmer climates) or summer homes where your customer only wants the utilities on for the summer months.

The dilemma facing your utility is should you continue to bill the base charge each month, even if the customer has no usage?

Recovery of infrastructure costs

One clue as to how to handle this is understanding the rationale behind your base charge.

For many utilities, the base charge is designed to recover the investment you have in providing service to the property, regardless if there is usage. You must maintain the infrastructure and service lines year-round and you have an investment in a meter at the premises, even if no one is living there.

If this is the case for your utility’s base charge, you have every reason to continue to charge the base charge, even if the account is temporarily inactive.

Fees in lieu of monthly billing

An alternative to billing the customer each month is to charge a fee to turn the service off and another fee to turn it back on (based on the user fee concept that you are performing a service for this customer that wouldn’t otherwise be required).

The idea here is the two fees combined should cover your staff’s time and effort to disconnect and reconnect the service as well as recoup what your customer would have paid if they left the service on with no usage and paid the base charge only.

How does your utility handle this?

How does your utility handle temporarily inactive accounts? Please take this quick poll.

Once you’ve taken the poll, you will be able to see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the final results in the next issue.

2017 Utility Fee Survey

The 2017 Utility Fee Survey is ongoing. If you haven’t already completed it, please click here to complete the survey. It should take less than five minutes to complete. For an idea of what to expect from the survey, here are the results of the 2015 Utility Fee Survey:

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com or call me at 919-232-2320.

I’m hoping for as much participation as possible in the survey, so please feel free to pass this on to your colleagues at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for your participation in the 2017 Utility Fee Survey.

Reviewing your policies?

If you’re in the process of reviewing or updating your policies, please give me a call at 919-232-2320, or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help you review your entire office operation.

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© 2017 Gary Sanders

Poll results and formal policies

The last Utility Information Pipeline addressed deceased customers and included a poll asking if reader’s utilities have a policy regarding deceased customers. Here are the results of that poll (clicking on the chart will open a larger graphic in a new window):

deceased-customers-poll-results

Poll results

I’m surprised to see only one utility has a formal policy regarding deceased customers.

This is the second informal poll I’ve conducted recently with the response of a formal policy being a distinct minority. The other was a poll regarding a policy for accepting loose coins.

Limited sample size

The deceased customers poll had 16 responses and the loose coins poll had 22. Statistically speaking, neither of these are very large samples, but, across my readership, I would like to think they are a representative sample of small and mid-sized utilities.

The current subscriber count for the Utility Information Pipeline stands at 322 and, in a good week, about 40% percent of subscribers open any particular issue. So that means, for any given issue, I can expect my newsletter to reach about 125 subscribers. Add to that a few views of my blog from followers on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and the number of readers responding to either poll is still significantly below 20% of those it reaches.

Importance of a formal policy

I’ve written previously about the importance of having a formal customer service policy. With so few responses to the two polls indicating these topics are addressed in a formal policy, this leads to one of two conclusions: (a) these utilities don’t have formal policies or (b) these topics aren’t covered in their existing formal policies.

If your utility has never been confronted with a customer dumping a huge pile of change on the counter to pay a bill, I can understand if accepting loose coins isn’t dealt with in your policy. However, with the requirement for each utility to have a Red Flags Rule policy, not having a policy regarding deceased customers is more surprising.

Do you have a formal customer service policy?

Does your office have a formal customer service policy? Please take this quick poll.

Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the final results in the next issue.

Do you need assistance developing or updating your policy?

If your office needs assistance developing or updating your customer service policy, please give me a call at 919-232-2320, or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

How do you handle deceased customers?

One of the listservs I subscribe to has had several questions posted regarding deceased customers and how other utilities handle the account of a person who has died.

Grave

Some utilities (generally smaller ones served by a single local newspaper) monitor the obituaries to see if any local deaths are utility customers. Why would that matter, you might ask?

Prevent identity theft

If you remember, one of the reasons for a Red Flags Rule policy is to prevent and mitigate identity theft.

In some cases, a utility bill in the customer’s name can be used as proof of ID. If a family member of a deceased customer were to move into the home and continue the service uninterrupted, that could be the first step in assuming a false identity. Insuring the account is transferred into the name of the executor or other living family member prevents any chance of that happening.

Protect against bad debt

Depending on the laws in your state, continuing to send a bill to a deceased person may prove to be difficult to collect if it goes unpaid. Therefore, transferring the account into the name of another living person is important.

Adequate security deposit

Additionally, if the deceased person was a longtime customer, they might have had a much smaller deposit (or even no deposit) than a customer applying for service today. Without an adequate security deposit, if the family member taking over the account proves to be habitually late paying, you could end up stuck with bad debt when they leave or sell the property.

Therefore, requiring the person who inherits or otherwise assumes responsibility for the property to apply for a new account is the safest policy.

Do you have a policy regarding deceased customers?

Does your office have a policy regarding deceased customers? Please take this quick poll.


Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the final results in the next issue.

Upcoming aging workforce seminar

Don’t forget the Aging Workforce Issues – Best Practices Panel & Luncheon seminar on Wednesday, November 30 from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, sponsored by the Utility Management Committee of the NC AWWA-WEA.

If you are located within driving distance of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I encourage you to consider attending in person. If not, you can still participate in a live webcast of the seminar.

The seminar moderator is J.D. Solomon, PE, CRE, CMRP; Vice President of CH2M. The panelists are:

  • Rod Dones, Organizational Development & Learning Specialist, Charlotte Water
  • Tamara Byers, Human Resources Manager, Charlotte Water
  • Ed Kerwin, PE, Executive Director, Orange Water & Sewer Authority
  • Kenny Waldroup, PE, Assistant Public Utilities Director, City of Raleigh
  • Matt Bernhardt, Director of Public Works and Utilities, City of Gastonia

For more information, or to register for the seminar, please click here.

Do you need assistance developing a policy?

If your office needs assistance developing or updating a policy regarding deceased customers, or any of your other policies, please give me a call at 919-232-2320, or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

How do you handle petty cash purchases?

Recently, we were in the process of implementing a new customer on Logics’ Utility Management Software when one of our trainers called with a question. It seems this customer doesn’t maintain a petty cash fund and, instead, reimburses employee purchases from the cashier’s daily collections. Our trainer wanted to know how I suggested handling this.

cash-box

Petty cash policy

My first response to our trainer was to convince the customer to discontinue using the daily cash till as petty cash and establish a petty cash fund. Having a petty cash fund provides better cash controls and oversight as to what is spent.

Here are some key elements of an effective petty cash fund policy:

  • Establish a petty cash fund just large enough to cover the volume of cash purchases
  • Impose a dollar limit on petty cash transactions
  • Appoint one person as the petty cash custodian
  • Store petty cash fund in a locked cash box or small safe
  • Document all disbursements with a petty cash voucher and receipt for the item(s) purchased
  • Reconcile and reimburse the petty cash fund at least monthly, but more frequently if needed
  • Conduct periodic, spot audits of the petty cash fund to insure money isn’t being “borrowed” and replaced later

Alternative to a petty cash fund

Purchasing cards (p-cards) are an excellent alternative to maintaining a petty cash fund. P-cards allow your employees to make purchases at any establishment that accepts credit cards. Most purchasing cards allow the issuing organization to limit where and for how much the card can be used, providing effective purchasing controls.

If you’re interested in more information about p-cards, here is a link to the Government Finance Officers Association’s Best Practice for Purchasing Card Programs document.

Petty cash poll

How do you handle petty cash transactions? Please take this quick poll.

Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the final results in the next issue.

Is your office operating efficiently?

If your office doesn’t have a petty cash fund policy, or doesn’t seem to be operating as efficiently as possible for another reason, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help improve your operation.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

What is your policy regarding loose coins?

You’ve probably read articles online or seen television news accounts of irate customers protesting a bill by paying entirely with coins. If you haven’t, just Google “coins as payment protest”. There’s even this story about a Michigan woman paying her entire $569.81 adjusted water bill with coins!

Listserv inquiry

A post from earlier this summer in a listserv I follow inquired if others in the listserv had policies prohibiting customers from paying with an excessive amount of coins. Apparently the poster has experienced this problem, or is at least interested in not experiencing it in the future!

Are you prepared to keep it from happening?

In an earlier Utility Information Pipeline, I wrote about a utility that doesn’t accept cash at all, so for them this wouldn’t be an issue. However, if your utility is like most I’m familiar with, you still accept cash and, without a policy to stop it, could be susceptible to an angry customer trying to pay with all coins.

Most banks won’t accept an excessive amount of coins for deposit unless they are rolled. So requiring any payment in coins (in excess of the amount of a roll of that denomination) to be rolled does not seem unreasonable. Also, entirely reasonable in my opinion, would be a limit to how much in rolled coins can be tendered for a single transaction.

How do you handle loose coins?

How does your utility deal with loose coins? Please take this quick poll.

 

Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. If you have a loose coins policy, please feel free to post the specifics of your policy in the comments. Click here to see the results.

Are your payment policies up-to-date?

If your payment policies are outdated, or if you think you could improve on how you take payments, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help improve your operation.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders