Customer billing seems like a banal subject, especially in the seemingly mundane world of utilities. But once you learn how complex it can be you gain a newfound respect for the people tasked with its management. You also quickly realize how ripe for improvement it can be. On my recent trip to São Paulo, I spent some time at the headquarters of AES Electropaulo, the principal electric utility for more than 16 million people. There I learned a bit about the many challenges the company faces, not the least of which is simply getting people accurate bills and collecting payments.
Until recently, the process by which a customer received her monthly bill involved a home visit by a utility employee who collected data from her meter then brought that data physically back to the company. As much as three days later, the employee would return to the customer to deliver a bill which could then be paid.
Working with SAP’s software, AES Electopaulo developed a more advanced hand-held billing device which, regardless of having an internet connection or not, is capable of printing out a utility bill on the spot – to deliver to the customer in one visit. Once connected, the device can upload billing data to the company. On the customer’s end the printed bill also contains a great deal more data than in older bills, tracking power usage over time and making it easier for a customer to tell whether they’re saving energy or not. Everything takes less than a minute.
What about smart meters?
Although the savings in time and the cost of trips alone make the new billing system well worth it, one has to wonder where the company stands in terms of rolling out smart meters – which could eliminate meter reading trips altogether. Antonio Jose Narvaez Romero, CIO, explained that the company was indeed experimenting with smart meters but the sheer complexity and expense of rolling out a full scale smart metering system put any such rollout well outside any short term plans. With problems such as utility theft and a rate of failure incidents many times that of a comparable utility in North America, there remains a big advantage to having people in the field on a constant basis. Customers too, benefit from a regular relationship with their meter reader who can double as a customer service agent.
Through the lens of sustainability, the savings in energy from this system are probably modest, but reducing costs while still maintaining jobs and a high level of personal customer service are laudable accomplishments.
Ed Note: Travel to Brazil was made possible by SAP