UMC: John P. Banks, senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative, stated that “millennials will account for 1/3 of the adult population by 2020.” Banks went on to say that “what this group wants and how it behaves will be critically important for the future of utilities…” In your opinion what kind of transformations are on the horizon? Listen to the answer here!
UMC: One of MECOMS philosophies is that employees are among a company’s most important assets. What steps do you take to ensure employee work satisfaction; I saw something about ironing services, did I read that right?
Leslie De Cuyper: Yes, you did. As you said, we believe our people are our most important asset. They know how the business works, they have the technical skills and its them who represent us, and our product, as customers.
So we believe it’s important to make sure our employees stay motivated, and the best way to do that is to make sure that there is a healthy work/life balance and to make work ‘fun’ as well. So next to providing our employees with an ironing service, making sure that the time they spend at home can be spent with their family and not the ironing board, we organize all sorts of activities and initiatives to mix work and pleasure. With European Championships (football) currently going on, we organized a little tournament of our own, we organized a big party for the employees to celebrate the new release, participate in several running events with the company and organize a bike-to-work day with free lunch, cooked up by some members of the EXCO.
We are currently also looking into launching and e-bike program to further stimulate a healthy lifestyle and avoid the stress that comes with the typical traffic jams and road works around Antwerp nowadays.
UMC: When does an employee start “Ferranti University” and what are the key technical training lessons that they embark on?
Leslie De Cuyper: The Ferranti University is a key aspect in every Ferrantian’s career. We have a curriculum of courses for every role within the company and training typically starts within the first week of joining the company.
Some courses are for every single Ferrantian. In those courses they learn about the basics of the energy and utilities market. The different roles, players, processes and common challenges. Everybody also learns about the basics of our MECOMs™ product. We even have a training course on MECOMS™ catered for C-level functions.
Depending on the role courses can then vary. Some more focused on the functional aspects; covering the implementation methodology best practices and functionality of the system. Others are more technical and focus on extending the core functionality, customization and integration. For most course we also have basic and advanced modules so people can really specialize in certain areas of the MECOMS™ product.
We believe learning is a process that never ends so new courses are created all the time and Ferrantians keep going back to school on a regular interval. Whenever new functionality is introduced or changes are made to core aspects of MECOMS™ new courses are set up and employees are trained. The beauty of the Ferranti University is that it’s not just for Ferrantians. It’s open to our partners and customers as well. Making sure that they have access to all the knowledge that we have so MECOMS™ will feel as natural to them as it feels to us.
UMC: There are a lot of flags on your homepage! What is the difference in undertaking a project in Singapore, as opposed to the United Kingdom? Or more simply, does location change client interactions?
Leslie De Cuyper: All those different flags is what makes life very interesting for a Ferrantian. With every different flag comes a different culture, different market requirements, different business requirements and different people. Every single aspect of the process can be different from one country to the other. The way you interact with the customer, ranging from informal in the majority of the world to very formal and structured in other parts. The way business is done also changes a lot; very business case driven in our home markets and driven by the business side of the company to more relationship based in southern regions to IT driven in the north.
What is common though is the core requirements, and it’s those that we cover with our MECOMS™ product. The specific of every country and/or region we cater for with our localization frameworks. Although we acknowledge the cultural and business differences in the different regions of the world, we do believe that mixing up teams and bringing best practices from other places in the world is what brings that edge that companies need to outsmart the competition. And that is what a global player like us can bring to our customers.
UMC: What is the greater need right now, Meter Data Management (MDM) or Customer Information System (CIS) updates?
Leslie De Cuyper: I think we have reached a point in time where there has never been a greater need for both of them together than now. And I’m not just talking about upgrading to a better MDM solution and upgrading to a better CIS solution, but upgrading to a solution that makes them both act as one.
With SMART metering becoming a standard in many parts of the world and access to big data storage and analytics becoming affordable utility companies will need to follow suit with other industries if they want to survive. If you just look at how much (online) shopping for clothing and tech has changed in the last few years, why should shopping for a new energy contract be any less of an experience? Why would Amazon be able to recommend which book I should read next, but my utility company be unable to suggest the most optimal plan for me? And all that not just by visiting them in their offices, but using the channels I as a customer prefer; digital, on paper…
The next generation of utility companies combine the insights they get from data analytics to fine-tune customer interaction and they use customer interaction to learn even more about the data and optimize their processes and services. To do this, you need to have a very strong alignment between your metering data and the customer information.
The flexibility that SMART meters and new market models bring with them also create a bigger challenge for the typical billing solutions. It’s no longer just about consumption x price. It’s becoming like in telecom, different rates at different times with immediate insight into cost when consuming. Even things like roaming may come into place when you start charging your EV at your friend’s place or in another country… Again this brings forward the need for a closer integration between CIS and MDM. You need access to all the granular data from the MDM system to deliver the billing services a customer expects these days.
UMC: What are your current clients biggest pain points? Can you give me an example?
Leslie De Cuyper: What drove customers to us has often been the high total cost of ownership that very often came with the systems that they owned. Fragmented application landscapes with high levels of customization and challenging interfaces and multiple technology stacks lead to big IT departments and high risks.
Also troublesome and expensive upgrades, mainly caused by the challenges mentioned above, made them re-evaluate the platform they had. With MECOMS™ we offer our customers a single, proven and future proof, technology stack that caters for the majority of their requirements and easily integrates with other systems to create the solution that optimally fits their need.
Customer that are on the MECOMS™ platform are not without challenges though. Margins on B2C customers are very small and cost to serve is always an issue. You can have the best IT system in the world, but if your customers keep calling you, you will have an issue with your cost to serve. So what a lot of our customers are currently investing in is the quality of interaction with the customer. Moving away from the old, basic, black text on white paper invoices and moving to rich, informative documents.
Stepping away from written letters to notifications on the portal and via SMS. The beauty of all this is that MECOMS™ could already deal with it. It’s just a matter of changing their business. No need to do large investments again.
Another challenge they face is not their fault at all. It’s the changes the market keeps forcing on them. New market models that do not offer them any business benefits. Ever changing go-live planning of new market models and legislative changes.
With our Country Templates we try to take away as much of the worries as we can. We make sure we have new releases ready when new market models are going live and we make sure that we know upfront when changes are coming and make sure our customers know what the potential benefits could be to them.
UMC: Let’s talk about your new release coming out this month. What kind of functions does your new customer portal feature?
Leslie De Cuyper: We are very much looking forward to releasing our R4 release. It’s going to be one of the biggest releases we’ve done since going to the Microsoft Dynamics AX platform back in 2005.
Our MECOMS Online self-service portal is one of the big new features in this release, together with our out-of-the-box integration with Dynamics CRM and Lasernet from Formpipe to optimize the level of quality and intimacy of communication between our customers and their customers.
Studies have shown that a customer portal is a very efficient way to reduce cost to serve for a utility company (which still is their biggest challenge and the call center takes up typically 40 percent of this cost), but you need to have at least 80 percent of your customers going through this channel before you can significantly save on your call center and really reduce your cost to serve. The same studies have shown that in reality, typically only 30 percent of utility companies’ customers go through the self-service portal, even though in other industries it is almost the go-to channel for everybody. The reason for this is the usability of these self-service portals. Many utility companies and companies building software for utility companies see a self-service portal as just an extension of back-office system functionality. They see it as just some web parts to enter data.
We have approached this from a completely different angle and have, before a single letter of code was written, attracted a service and experience design company to help us in defining that unique customer experience that people expect from a utility, self-service portal.
This effort has resulted in an out of the box self-service portal that not only covers the most important use cases and touchpoints along the customer journey, ranging from self-registration to invoice consultation, online payment and support tickets and FAQ, but does so in a way that our customers can just change the color scheme to match their company and launch it. There’s no longer a need for our customer to hire their own designers and go through very expensive design projects before they can implement their portal, we already got that covered for them.
From a technical point of view we made sure that the portal integrates seamlessly with our MECOMS™ product and that all data and business logic resides within MECOMS™ and not in the portal. We also made sure that the REST web services we use for the portal are well documented and designed so that our customers can easily develop their own custom mobile apps and connect them with MECOMS™.
UMC: On the whole, utilities remain pretty conservative when it comes to cloud technology. Do you think the benefits will ever fully outweigh the risks?
Leslie De Cuyper: Although we often speak of the energy and utilities market as a whole, there are a lot of differences within. Just compare the typical, state owned (or previously state owned) grid operators and start-up energy retailers. For that second category of players in the market, the cloud and SAAS are already the go to solution. Their focus is 100 percent on agility, creativity and doing business and 0 percent on having their own IT organization and infrastructure. They are looking for scalable IT systems that fit their needs now, in start-up phase, but also later on in life when they have become the challenger for the big companies out there that they aspire to be. They often also come from other markets and industries and often lack the deep insight into the specific that the established players have an look for an IT solution that offers them a best practice, proven solution that takes care of changing market needs and legislation without them having to tell the IT supplier what these are or how they should work. These are just some examples of why our SAAS offering in the UK, a market where there a lot of new market entrants, is becoming such a success.
The other category of players, the bigger established companies are, as you mention, still often pretty conservative. They are often bound by legislation on where there data must reside. They fear the risk of ‘exposing’ their data to the outside world and fear privacy issues and hacks. These reasons to not go to the cloud are, from my point of view, outdated. Where your data is stored can already be well determined and restricted in the cloud and regarding security I always think back to a statement made by Microsoft at one of their ‘Convergence’ events in the US. “Who do you think will protect your data the best; your 40-year old internal IT manager who went to school in the era of floppy disks before the internet even existed, or the entirety of engineers at Microsoft?” I just loved that statement.
There is however still a big difference between going to the cloud and SAAS. Making use of cloud infrastructure and the scalability it offers, is from my point of view a business case discussion. Is it more cost effective, now and in the long term, taking into account risks etc.? If yes, then just do it.
SAAS is a different story. It brings you the flexibility in infrastructure and licensing that the cloud does, but also introduces some other, more challenging things for the business. If your MDM and CIS solutions are business critical, can you as a business go for a model where it is not you who determines when upgrades will happen? Do you as a business are mature enough to make sure you have the right exit strategies in place? Will you get your data back, in a usable format? Are you covered for downtime? Will new versions still integrate with your other business applications and what is your back-up plan if they don’t?
I think there are answers out there to cover all these concerns, but it just might explain why some of the bigger players are not in the cloud yet (or are planning to be in the short term) and are definitely not yet going for SAAS solutions.