In the highly competitive, deregulated utilities and telecoms market, businesses are finding that delivering more than one utility product, often to the same location, offers cost cutting opportunities and is essential in improving customer service.

The multi-utility market will grow over time on a global scale, as the effects of deregulation have a stronger impact on the market. However, a critical issue remains: without optimal billing systems in place, process inefficiencies can quickly undermine suppliers’ profits and consequently customer satisfaction. As a result multi-utility service providers have to use substantial IT resources, which often leads to high cost per customer for the supplier. This in its turn reduces the thin profit margins in the competitive market.

Thus the question is how to distinguish among hundreds of multi-utility billing systems and determine which will allow your utility to achieve optimisation of operations, the necessary levels of customisation and meet the company’s cost-benefit ratio requirements.

Figure 1: Important Criteria for system selection

Germany has rich experience in multi-utility billing. Because of liberalisation pressure, the multi-utility operations allowed companies to achieve competence and revenue synergies while diversifying risk. With more than 500 multi-utility companies (“Stadtwerke”) operating in the market for decades, a developed market for multi-utility billing systems has been created. It will be interesting and useful to share their experience and see how this knowledge can be applied to other markets.

Figure 2: Billing Systems In Use ( survey of the top 100 utilities in Germany)

First of all it is worth looking at the general criteria that German Stadtwerke use in order to select a multi-utility billing system. The recent survey conducted by trend:research revealed the following criteria:

Efficiency:

  • The application must be able to be operated intuitively.
  • Functional names and object names must be self-explanatory.
  • Important information must be centrally arranged; unimportant
    detail should not be included.
  • Input fields must suggest possible values.
  • The application must be learned quickly and easily.
  • The application can be integrated into existing systems, e.g. the ERP system.
  • Existing conventions are followed.
  • An operator’s mistake must not destroy the whole work; therefore an ‘Undo’ function must be present.

Performance:

  • The time it takes to start the application.
  • The length of time needed to answer the user’s enquiry.
  • The time between making changes between input fields and
    transactions.
  • Duration for the processing of a business process.
  • Time for explaining search runs or background jobs.

Scalability:

  • The ability to use various systems concurrently.
  • Contracts, customers, payers, etc must be able to be demonstrated.
  • Support settlements, branches, clients etc.
  • The possibility of integrating large numbers of new customers,
    e.g. in the case of mergers or co-operation.

Security: There are three aspects of security. The operational safety is a measure of the availability of an application. It shows how mistake-tolerant the application is and how an input error or hardware mistake affects the company. The measures to provide operational safety include evasive systems, mistake-correcting codes and independent stream care.

The data security means the protection of the operational data from unplanned inspection and manipulation, or data destruction by input error. Data security can be provided by firewalls and access controls, back-ups and RAID systems.

The third security aspect is the correctness of the application which handles the given and stored data. In big software solutions there are millions of lines of programming codes, which might be of variable quality, and this factor should not be ignored. The stability of an application can be guaranteed by graded mistake management, object orientation and detailed protocols.

Integration with existing systems: A software solution should integrate easily with other applications, from ERP to CRM. About one-third of German multi-utilities indicated that integration with existing systems is one of the central requirements that the software must meet. The supply of suitable interfaces and simple tools is necessary for the integration of the systems, and this is one of the biggest problems – one in every ten users indicated that they had had to battle with considerable interface problems.

Figure 3: The users interface Energy, this is the customer information module

Fig 3: The user's interface ENER:GY; This is the customer information module.

These problems were often encountered in both the direct application-general communication (how applications communicate with each other, for example in bill data exchange) and also in the system-general and enterprise-general communication. Problems with firewalls or the Internet connection, for example, often make consulting projects using external advisers necessary.

Extensibility: This aspect covers the ability of a system to handle the amount of extensions needed to integrate. A system implementation can easily grow into a multi-million dollar project, if all the costs of training, support, business process optimisation and so on are taken into account. These investments must show some kind of return, and users should not need to replace the whole system in order to add a few new functions. It is therefore necessary to be able to adapt the existing solution to allow for upgrades within the scope of the servicing contract, and to be able to add additional extensions when needed.

Figure 4: The eEnergy-GUI

Fig 4: The eEnergy-GUI

Economic viability: The most important factor is the economic viability of a solution. It is not enough that the new system performs the task accurately and does it fast. There must be a bottom-line return on the investment, which corresponds at least to its entire procurement cost. Unfortunately, this is not always easy to measure, because an economic viability check is often not done. Thus it is important that the systems meet both the selected strategy and the economic viability check.

An analysis of the German multi-utility billing systems market clearly indicates that the major market feature, based on the top-100 German utilities, is the dominance of the SAP systems, while alternative systems are used only by smaller enterprises (see figure 2).
Several billing systems are used in German
utilities :

  • SAP IS-U
  • Wilken ENER:GY
  • Neutrasoft DIANEpro
  • Siebel eEnergy
  • Cursor EVI
  • Schleupen.CS
  • Somentec XAP

Among the top 100 utilities, about 65% of those surveyed indicated that they use SAP (IS-U), 15% that they use Neutrasoft (DIANE, DIANEpro AM) and about 10% of enterprises prefer either Wilken (ENER:GY) or Schleupen (Schleupen.CS.VA).