City gas distribution (CGD) is a consumer-centric business. Its complexity arises from the fact that there are a number of technical procedures involved between the stages of customer acquisition and gas delivery, which is the “contracts to settlement” procedure. Monitoring of the distribution system also requires efficient procedures to maximise revenue realisation or the “meter-to-cash” process. In addition, there are multiple solution requirements for these processes and a one-size-fits-all approach is not the most beneficial.
The business also spans a large geographical area and manually monitoring the system is difficult. Process automation can standardise the monitoring process and help in efficiently scheduling and improving various associated activities like meter reading and complaint redressal.
Importance of data in CGD
The principal function of information technology (IT) systems is the collection and analysis of data to make day-to-day business decisions. Data is required to monitor various activities like gas availability and supply, network operations, safety procedures, asset security, financial analytics, customer management and general management.
Manual data collection may have reliability issues. Variations in personal attitude and discipline increase the chances of misleading data. Also, supply points like compressed natural gas stations, compressor stations and meters are located remotely and comprehensive data is not always readily available at one location. In the absence of the availability of reliable data, it is difficult to make timely and correct decisions and take action.
Further, there are a number of operational issues that require data on a regular basis. These may include the dependability and productivity of resources, irregular supply of gas to customers, theft by unscrupulous agents, manual price control at remote and unmanned stations, variation in stocks at particular points or in transit, differences in available pressure at different stations, and unforeseen powering off of stations.
Safety is also of paramount importance in any business related to gas supply and consumption. Safety issues include the detection of leakages and fires, choking of pipelines/filters, quality of cylinders, etc. Also, manual intervention is difficult in such cases, considering the safety hazards involved.
Managerial issues dependent on the availability of reliable data include automated contract management, demand forecast, gas allocation, nomination, production approval and workflow management, and plant profitability.
Automated data collection helps in analysing any situation effectively to improve customer service and minimise revenue leakages. Systems that are automated can be controlled remotely from a central point, minimising the need for manual visits and supervision. Further, automation helps in developing standardised procedures to allow smooth functioning of day-to-day operations with timely response in case of any problems.
CIS as a technological solution
The customer information system (CIS) is an important part of utility management information systems. There is a symbiotic relationship between customer service and the financial health of CGD utilities, since improved services enhance customers’ confidence in the utility and their perception of the value delivered by it. This eventually results in greater consumer willingness to pay for the services.
CIS has various functionalities, including the monitoring of customer information related to personal data, customer account type, and feeder and transformer information. CIS also helps in generating meter readings and data (meter data and maintenance records, meter reading history), and customer invoices (personal data, account type, reading date, usage data, tariff schedule, billing date, due date, aged debt, etc.).
CIS is also necessary to monitor payment and receipt transactions like cash register, cheques and bounced cheques, payment types, prepaid amounts and partial payments, payment locations, credit history, receipt printing, and special tax receipt printers. Other functions of CIS are managing connections, disconnections and reconnections, cash control and generating various other reports like daily payments, daily breakdown by area/book, lists of clients with credit or arrears, energy balances, ad hoc reports, etc. These parameters are critical for revenue realisation.
The major causes for revenue leakages in most utilities are implicit/explicit errors in metering, correction factor errors, slow or defective meters, irregular meter readings, deliberate underbilling, customers not being billed, unregistered consumers, etc.
CGD utilities are increasingly making efforts to interact with customers in order to ensure successful operations. They resort to conducting field-level research through various surveys to gauge customer requirements. Such surveys aim to highlight problems related to response time to service calls, time taken to connect or disconnect gas lines, etc. These surveys help the utilities determine changes in customer behaviour patterns and act accordingly. Such programmes have been found to be more effective than aggressive enforcement methods.
Determining the right time for the deployment of technology solutions is also vital. Utilities must focus on delivering benefits to consumers as soon as a technology solution has been installed. Prior to this, the groundwork for educating customers about the plan and schedule of deploying the technologies and their expected value benefits must be done.
However, mere education may not suffice for utilities that want cooperative behaviour from end-users, which is needed to achieve efficient use of resources and keep options open for rescheduling their capital investments in the future. Hence, utilities must focus on making their technologies beneficial to customers. For instance, to attract customers, communication should be in the local language. The three most important aspects of user experience – ease of use, relevance and engagement – must be clearly explained to customers. Engagement entails reliability, implying that the utility has made an effort to ensure privacy concerns are addressed. Accuracy of energy use data and the billed amount accessed from various sources such as web portals and mobile applications needs to be ensured.
Gas distribution utilities, which have a complex web page design with multiple graphs, tend to discourage consumer engagement. Instead, utilities should focus on a simple home page with the most relevant data on it. Also, the web page should be user friendly, with easy navigation options. The idea of offering value through information and insights into the trends and current gas consumption will help utilities successfully counteract negative reactions, if any, after a new technology solution is installed.
CIS and related technology solutions can act as effective tools to streamline gas distribution functions, and ensure efficiency and transparency once consumers are taken into confidence and kept abreast of developments.
Meanwhile, there are various other solutions available in the market to address the business requirements of CGD players. These include software and hardware solutions relating to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, contract management systems, management information systems, demand forecasting, meter data and portfolio management, and billing.
The ultimate aim of any business should be customer satisfaction, along with revenue maximisation. According to industry experts, the customer’s willingness to pay depends on the quality of service made available. Any CGD utility can derive a mutually beneficial outcome if customers perceive it to be efficient.
To enhance their influence on customers, utilities must reach out to the market to gauge user requirements and utilise the lessons to bring about changes in consumer behaviour. Addressing chronic issues like response time to service calls, time taken to connect/disconnect supply, power quality and interruptions, and ease of bill payment are important to enhance the customer’s confidence in a utility.
IT systems, with their various functionalities, are important tools for utilities to achieve efficiency in their operations. The automation and standardisation of processes help employees execute time-consuming tasks more efficiently, thus allowing them to channelise their efforts into other beneficial operations and increase productivity. The availability of regular and updated information enables decision-makers make timely and informed choices to maximise business output. Finally, an end-to-end IT solution facilitates smooth operations, thus helping utilities realise their full business potential.