IT'S A TYPICAL MORNING IN THE ARIZONA PUBLIC SERVICE CUSTOMER CARE CENTER in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., where the sounds of 175 call center associates handling customer phone calls fill the room with the intensity of the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. One Spanish line associate, Marcos Sanchez, has just completed a customer call. During the 6-minute call, Sanchez collected the customer's personal information, discussed service plans and meter access issues and scheduled the order. In all, Sanchez completed 97 steps through 36 screens on his computer. This is a problem for both Sanchez and the call center. It's too many computer screens taking up too much time for call center associates.

TONS OF DATA

“APS is unique among utility companies because of our steady customer growth, customers moving in and out of our service area, and the service plan choices we offer to them. Those choices make our business much more complex,” said Alan Wessel, former leader, customer care center. “Associates have to cover a lot of information and maneuver through many, many screens just to turn on a new customer's electricity.”

APS is Arizona's largest electric utility, providing regulated electric service in 11 of the state's 15 counties to more than a million homes and businesses. Last year, APS's call center took 4.5 million telephone calls. August 2005 was its busiest month ever with 492,000 calls and that's after a record-breaking July. All of this is to show that the computer database used by customer care associates performs the difficult task of storing tons of data — more than a million customers' personal information, billing history and even rate plans.

Even more difficult is trying to sort through that data to get what is needed to answer a call.

A NEW CIS

These problems began in the late 1990s, when the customer care center started preparing for the deregulation of electricity within the state of Arizona. The old mainframe-based system was not equipped to deal with clients using outside vendors for electricity or the additional robust volume of client calls that were projected to come from this change. After four years of development and testing, a new customer information system (CIS) was installed in 1998 to answer all of these needs. Its scope included the billing engine and enterprise-wide desktop application serving all of our customer service organizations. In the end, deregulation did not happen. But, because Arizona is the second-fastest growing state in the country, the robust customer volume still came.

The process for getting at all the data stored in CIS was error prone, sending APS employees through as many as 38 screens, 100 steps and 8 to 9 minutes of work per call. (A step is an action on a screen, such as changing a name or number.) None of the information was centralized, so to complete the simplest task, associates worked their way through a maze of interface windows, often updating the same information repeatedly. It also created uncomfortable silences for customers or placed them on hold for long periods, extending service times. Overall, it was a far cry from the customer care center's goal of answering 80% of the calls in as little as 20 seconds.

So, for example, if a call associate is trying to connect a new customer, depending on the rate plan, that customer may need a new or specialized meter. A common mistake with the decentralized information of CIS is that an operator may change a customer's plan, but not the meter. So a customer has to wait longer for service until the mistake is discovered and corrected.

FIXING THE PROBLEMS

According to Wessel, there were only two options, either replace the entire CIS after only recently purchasing it or develop a means to upgrade it. The cost to replace was too high, so the goal became developing a new interface for CIS, with some specific objectives: reduce a call's average handling time by 20%, improve customer satisfaction by providing more efficient service, improve employee satisfaction with a less error-prone system with far fewer steps, and finally, reduce training time for new associates.

To answer this challenge, a new “front-end” software application called Customer Care Express (CCE) was developed. This was the result of a collaboration between residential and business line associates, performance development, information services, customer care credit associates, business analysts and a partnership with external project management and software programming companies. CIS would remain in operation, but would become the unseen “back end,” the engine behind CCE.

Wessel led these teams through two phases of development. The initial phase, which created a prototype for the new system, mapped out what a streamlined customer phone call might look like. In the second phase, external vendors developed the actual software. The entire process took two years.

A SINGLE PHONE CALL

To envision what a streamlined customer phone call system might look like, the CCE development team started with the most basic unit — a single phone call.

During the first phase of CCE development, employees and visitors to Deer Valley, the largest of APS's three call centers, may have felt as though they had wandered into an Egyptian tomb, where the story of CIS was told on the only space that was large enough to hold it — the walls. Like information-age hieroglyphics, CIS screens (400 in all) were posted on massive rolls of paper throughout the building to allow the patterns of typical care center customer phone calls to emerge.

Methodically, associates on the development team organized information into groups representing the most common call types. Once this was done, the team developed mock-ups of interface screens for a streamlined system based on the common call types. Using front-line call representatives from the customer care center, the team benchmarked the time difference between the CIS system with and without CCE mock-ups. Call center associates also offered feedback to modify the new screens specifically to their needs.

The walls weren't just used to map out the new processes, but also the old. Screen mock-ups of the process for the old system were displayed so that customer call associates could make sure that the team accurately documented the call process for a number of scenarios as it stands. Once completed with the associate input, the development team could further improve the new system of screens to be developed for the second phase of the project.

All of the information, mock-ups and criteria gathered by the development team in the initial phase were provided to outside vendors, Pinnacle Call Center Solutions and Infosys, to build the actual system.

A GRADUAL CUTOVER

During Memorial Day weekend 2005 a small group of trained associates began using CCE. Because the new system was still linked to the original CIS, the cutover was gradual and fairly painless. The plan was to train the 246 associates at the customer care center in small groups and switch them over gradually.

Over two weeks, while 40 call associates were being initiated into the new system, the new software was installed for this initial group. In the meantime, those untrained continued using CIS directly. Training each group took only a week and, depending on caller volume, anywhere from one to two groups were going through the process.

Some of the new elements of CCE include consolidating the numerous screens generated by the old system into simple shortcut “tabs.” Rather than plumbing CIS to pull customer information, call center associates now have all the information they need at a glance, based on the nature of the phone call. CCE brought the 97 steps through 36 screens that APS's Sanchez would normally go through for a customer call down to about 10 or 12 steps, giving information in a specific order relative to a request. This makes the system less error prone.

In the end, the 400 screens used by CIS were blended into just 100 screens in CCE. In addition, each change made to any one screen propagates to all screens in the system, centralizing the information.

MEASURES OF SUCCESS

“CCE is what you need, when you need it. It's a really powerful system,” said Aimee Quintana, associate and CCE project team member.

A new element added to the software is a built-in high-customer-bill diagnosis tool, one of the most common reasons for calls during the summer months. It has already proven extremely useful in the care center. Sue Fulton, associate, customer care residential credit team, explained, “Since there are so many reasons that might cause a customer's bill to go up, investigating a high bill can be quite an endeavor. But with the diagnosis tool on CCE, it's so much easier because the information is all on one screen and a lot of the work is done for you.”

As of November 2005, 210 of the 246 customer call associates are trained and using CCE. The training is expected to be completed by the beginning of 2006. Comparing August 2004 to August 2005, the recorded busiest month in the center's history, Wessel reported a 40-second decrease in a call's average handling time. He estimated that for every 15 seconds eliminated from the process, eight fewer call associates are needed in the center on a given day.

Kim Seney, director, customer operations, said that everyone has high expectations for CCE. “Our goal is to reduce our call-handling time by a minute per call, eliminate the need for 75,000 incoming calls per year through greater accuracy, and cut down on the time our customers are on hold,” she said. “Because CCE takes much of the complexity away from routine customer transactions, our associates will be able to focus more on the hallmark of our phone center: customer care. CCE will be more satisfying to both our customers and our associates.”

Jan Bennett, vice president, customer service, commented, “This is a great example of applying technology that results in immediate cost savings. All too often, we find that the technology we install fails to produce the anticipated savings for a number of reasons.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author would like to thank Alan Wessel (Alan.Wessel.aps.com) for his insights into the processes that took place within the CCE project. He is responsible for meter reading and field services. Prior to this recent change he served as the APS customer care manager and was in charge of more than 250 customer care associates.

Rufus Coleman is a communications representative for corporate communications at Arizona Public Service Co. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. Rufus.Coleman@aps.com

Navigational Steps
Process As-Is Steps To-Be Steps Percent Decrease
Bill/Account Inquiry 28 14 50%
SONP 28 12 57%
Payment Confirmation 24 9 63%
High/Low/Average 17 6 65%
Outage 20 9 55%
Mailing Address Change 29 12 59%
TONP 58 15 74%
Payment Options 25 13 48%
Access 21 15 29%
Deposit 30 17 43%
High Bill 33 18 45%
Credit Agreement 42 13 69%
Equalizer 33 20 39%
Turn On 97 34 65%
Shut Off 39 16 59%
Transfer of Service 98 33 66%
Average 38.8 16 55%
New customer information system reduces navigational steps.
Business Value
Average Reduction in Screens Average Reduction in Number of Steps AHT Reduction (seconds)
Service Orders 22 50 109
Billing 9 13 32
Credit 14 23 60
Outage 0
Miscellaneous 9 12 42
Average 13 23 60
APS associates face fewer screens with new system.
Navigational Savings
Process As-Is Steps To-Be Steps Percent Decrease
Bill/Account Inquiry 15 4 73%
SONP 22 4 82%
Payment Confirmation 12 3 75%
High/Low/Average 6 3 50%
Outage 7 3 57%
Mailing Address Change 14 4 71%
TONP 24 5 79%
Payment Options 13 4 69%
Access 12 4 67%
Deposit 11 6 45%
High Bill 18 4 78%
Credit Agreement 21 3 86%
Equalizer 16 6 63%
Turn On 36 10 72%
Shut Off 14 5 64%
Transfer of Service 41 10 76%
Average 18 5 69%
CIS improvements reduce steps necessary in many functional areas.