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Defining customer information system success for utilities

For Accenture’s Craig White, implementing a customer information system means keeping your eye on the outcomes.

Craig White
Managing director, Accenture Utilities

What are the most common business drivers that would lead utilities to implement a new customer information system (CIS)?
I think there are several drivers you typically see. One is about driving pure operational efficiency within the company, whether that is due to legacy systems or aging technology or, in the case of an acquisition, consolidating multiple disparate systems.

Another driver is meeting evolving market requirements, whether that’s for a competitive or regulated market, as well as meeting evolving customer expectations. Getting onto a platform that is flexible and that a utility can then innovate off of is important.

Finally, having a platform for growth is another driver. A lot of utilities are looking to grow their customer base organically or through acquisitions and if a utility can get a new technology platform and also standardize and improve their business processes, that provides a strong platform for growth.

What are some of the current trends you are seeing in CIS implementations?
There seem to be an increasing number of utilities currently figuring out their CIS strategy, which is creating an interesting demand in the market. With so many systems being replaced, there is some concern about the availability of system implementers. As a result, utilities are looking to get started on their CIS replacement sooner rather than later to ensure they can secure the best implementer.

We’re also seeing utilities starting to have a more digital mindset, certainly when it comes to their CIS. They are looking to take advantage of in-memory computing, additional insights from an analytic standpoint as well as new capabilities from a customer standpoint—that’s definitely a new trend I’m seeing among utilities.

What are some common barriers utilities face on their CIS journey?
These implementations are tremendous efforts, and take a lot of strategic thinking and planning up front before they can be kicked off. One barrier is not having a clear focus on what the system is meant to achieve and how the outcomes will be measured. Utilities need to truly understand their business drivers, have a clear customer vision and articulate that into specific business outcomes.

Another barrier is not having alignment and agreement within the organization on what is important and how to move forward. Having executive alignment and commitment is key, it is going to drive what the priorities are and also help get employees ready for that change. And not having sufficient employee alignment and readiness can be a separate barrier all by itself.

How can utilities ensure they are making the most of their CIS investments?
For a regulated utility, of course, it’s about actually being able to get their investment recovered. In my previous experience as a utility executive in Texas, being able to clearly articulate the benefits of the system to all stakeholders, including shareholders, regulators and customers, was critical. Utilities should include the benefits in the business case and in the implementation priorities, and be able to demonstrate those customer benefits after the CIS has been implemented.

In addition, utilities need to minimize the impact of the new system to customers. One of the first things that can drive regulators to question a utility’s CIS investment will be receiving customer complaints after the system is live. Making the process seamless to customers will help in the recovery process. So making the customer base an active part of a CIS journey is key.

While implementing on time and on budget is very important, it needs to be about identifying the critical outcomes for the business and how to deliver those outcomes, which is going to drive the return on investment. And those outcomes aren’t all necessarily monetary.

What are some key ways utilities can minimize risk of failure or not achieving their desired outcomes?
Utilities should make sure they choose a proven approach, have strong project management and a transparent, predictable methodology that will drive a consistent implementation. Put an effective governance structure in place, so that decisions stay on schedule. Develop a timeline that includes milestones and decisions for each phase of the project.

Ensure leadership is engaged in making key decisions so that they will be strong supporters of the effort and help drive acceptance into their organization.

Don’t make the project more complicated than it needs to be. Focus on the top business outcomes, and prioritize enhancements and efforts there. Keep all the other processes as standard as possible so that the system is easier and quicker to implement.

How has digital changed the way CIS are implemented?
I think utilities are realizing that a CIS implementation can no longer be viewed as an end-state solution, but rather as a foundation to enable quicker responses to evolving customer expectations.

Customers have increasing expectations around how they want to interact with their utility and new and enhanced products and services they want to receive. In some cases, there will be new value propositions including those around renewables and the connected home that may not be fully realized until sometime in the future. A CIS needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to quickly pivot to support those expectations or capabilities.

What advice do you have for utilities looking to implement a CIS?
Begin preparation early. Figuring out the customer service vision and business case, determining a good governance structure, identifying key stakeholders and establish a steering committee—get those things in place first. Give yourself enough time to do that, which may be one or more years ahead of implementation.

Get executive alignment around the investment and what you are trying to accomplish, as I mentioned in a previous question.

Talk to other utilities about their CIS experiences. The utility world is a tight-knit industry. There is significant value in connecting with other utilities—talk to them, visit them and learn from them. There are many utilities that would be happy to share their lessons learned and best practices, and give some guidance.

Allow sufficient time to test the system against the legacy. Some utilities tested for more than a year before their system went live. And the testing process is definitely iterative, starting out from the most simplistic of just testing every individual enhancement that you do, to testing integrated end-to-end business processes, to running batches overnight and comparing those to your legacy system, doing that over and over again is critical.

How has your experience in the industry changed you as an energy consumer?
I think as a consumer I expect more from my energy provider in terms of the customer experience. I expect to have a consistent experience whether I use their website, their mobile app or if I call them. I expect them to have their channels integrated enough so that there is continuity in handling my issue—so I’m not starting over each time I make a contact.

While I’m not super active on the social front, from a digital perspective, I definitely engage via mobile and Web self-service. The challenge for some utilities is to develop a more digital mindset and figure how out to integrate social customer service into their traditional customer service.

Craig White is a managing director in Accenture’s Utilities industry group, based in Dallas, Texas. Previously, Craig was the director of Business Processes and Change Management at Atmos Energy, where he was responsible for defining the service experience for the company’s 3 million utility customers and directing transformation initiatives to achieve service excellence. He has deep knowledge and experience in customer service management, IT strategy and planning, risk management and energy trading.