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Feature Article
November 2000


Comprehensive Customer Interaction Management (CIM) Solution Powers Entergy


Power is often something people take for granted. They don't give it much attention, but rather assume it will always be there. However, without it, people are lost. Homes become chaotic, businesses shut down and most normal activities come to a screeching halt.

As one of the largest utility companies in the United States, Entergy has pressing responsibilities to its 2.5 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to provide the power its customers need to keep their lives running smoothly and ensure they receive the consistent level of quality service they deserve.

Recognized as an industry leader, Entergy's domestic and international power plants generate nearly 30,000 megawatts of electricity. Its wholesale power trading and marketing operation is ranked among the top ten in the country, it holds spot 198 on the Fortune 500 and consistently achieves double-digit growth in sales and income.

At the same time it enjoys success of this magnitude, Entergy works to maintain its focus on individual customers. Providing power is a profitable business -- as long as customers' needs are met and their bills are paid. To continue as a leader in the utility business, Entergy realized that it was not enough to simply manage customer inquiries and service requests, but it was necessary to go one step further. Entergy had to determine how to be proactive and reach out to its customers.

The Pilot Program
In April of 1998, Entergy took the first step.

Inbound customer service specialist, Linda Butler, and five of her colleagues were brought together and asked to try something new: making outbound calls. While assessing operations and proposing improvements to Entergy's credit and collection efforts, an internal team came up with the idea of calling customers to prevent impending service disconnections.

At the time, Entergy was sending its customers late notices via regular mail to follow up on unpaid bills. The problems with this system are well-known by most companies: many customers wait until the very last minute to pay, and some wait too long to send in payment. In other cases, customers could not afford to pay in full and were unaware of the payment plans Entergy could arrange for them. Some corporate customers were sending their bills to accounts payable departments in which the paper trails were longer than the billing cycles. These corporate customers were not even aware the bills had not been paid.

Often, the late notice would not elicit a response or payment and Entergy was forced to turn off the electricity at a residence or business. After disconnection and payment, Entergy had to send its crew back to restore the electricity. Approximately 78 percent of disconnects were followed by reconnects.

Entergy's outbound calling program sought to prevent the inconvenience of service interruption and save the costs associated with turning service off only to restore it a day or two later.

When Entergy debuted this program, recalls Butler, the outbound agents "were supposed to be calling everyone on the Mississippi disconnect list for the next day. Well, it was huge. Our printer couldn't handle it. But somehow we got the list printed and divided it up among the six of us. Then, we each sat at our desks, accessing each account to make sure that the bill had not yet been paid and we weren't going to be harassing them. Then, we dialed the number manually, and if we didn't reach them, we wrote down the time at which we should next try, and then dialed them again until we reached the individual responsible for the bill and put a memo to the account."

The process was tedious, says Butler, but "we really gave it our all and we wanted it to succeed from our very first call. We were trying something new and our customers were letting us know time and again how much they appreciated it. We began to record our calls so management could hear what customers were saying."

Management heard. Within six months of making the first outbound call, Entergy had proven that being proactive was successful. The new system paid enough to justify investing in a customer interaction management (CIM) solution. Marjorie Frederic, supervisor for Entergy's outbound calling and deferred payment center and verification group, explains why. "We were looking for a solution that was PBX-based, but had a future." Entergy was making a long-term investment in customer care, and wanted the ability to expand its programs over time.

By March, according to Butler, "Agents were trained on the job and we were rocking and rolling with those calls. I never knew there was a training manual until I took on a management role! Just as a customer's 'hello' is heard in the agent's headset, a box pops up on his or her monitor providing a customer and account profile that guides the agent through the call."

With the new solution in place, Entergy's agents now give residential and small business customers friendly reminder calls to let them know their payment is due that day to prevent service disruption. During these campaigns, Entergy calls between 6,000 and 10,000 customers per day, Monday through Friday, between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Six full-time agents make several attempts to reach customers as needed.

In her role overseeing the outbound calling center, Butler sets up the outbound dialer and loads the call table in the morning. When all the agents have logged off in the evening, she generates the reports. The reports are comprehensive in nature, providing information on the number of calls made per hour, the number of answering machine recordings left, the length of time each agent was logged in, the length of time they were idle, the numbers of payments, extensions and deferred payment agreements made.

Among the most impressive numbers generated is the number of calls made each hour. Butler and her fellow agents were told the new solution would double their productivity and allow them to make approximately 30 live contacts per hour, as opposed the 12 to 15 per hour they had been making before.

"We didn't think it was going to happen," said Butler. "The new solution makes the calling easier -- easier to handle, easier to respond to and easier to track, while the increase in agent productivity and efficiency surprised everyone involved."

Between March and December of 1999, Entergy's agents made 759,860 contacts, both live agent calls and answering machine messages. This represents an average of 76,000 contacts a month. The results were pleasing. Eighty percent of customers reached by answering machine paid their bills, and between 94 to 96 percent of the customers spoken to in person paid their bills.

Entergy's agents have continued to record the thousands of compliments they receive. According to Butler, "these are not just plain 'thank you for calling' kinds of compliments. Customers are really impressed that even after we've already sent out bills and late notices, we care enough to take this extra step. We're on the phone with them the day before they're supposed to get disconnected, saying, 'hey, we care about you. Let's find a way to prevent this disconnection.'"

In April of 2000, Entergy recorded 1,334 customer compliments on their courtesy calls alone.

Entergy Calls Medical Protect Customers
There is another, more urgent element to Entegy's customer service policies. At times, the stakes can be considerably higher than a day without lights or television. Some Entergy customers depend on medical equipment powered by electricity.

Again, Entergy saw the opportunity to expand its service for its customers. With its new customer interaction management (CIM) solution, Entergy wanted to be able to warn customers of possible power outages. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas all endure the occasional ice storm, hurricane and tornado that can cause electrical outages. Whenever there is the risk of a power loss, Entergy sets up the dialer and within one to two hours, contacts customers with medical protect codes posted to their accounts. Entergy agents inform these customers that they may need to put their backup plan in place to keep their medical equipment running.

Expecting a possible power outage related to an ice storm in Mississippi, Arkansas and northern Louisiana earlier this year, Entergy shifted into high gear. In less than one hour, agents contacted all 1,200 customers on their medical protect list for those areas.

Entergy's New Flexibility
The options and flexibility that its customer interaction management (CIM) solution enables has inspired Entergy to consider implementing more campaigns to continuously enhance its customer service performance.

One of the first campaigns will be to call customers in the neighborhoods in which Entergy's service department will be working. While power lines are being upgraded, some customers may experience temporary service interruptions. To alert them, Entergy traditionally distributes door hangers prior to performing maintenance work. However, these door hangers are often ignored or lost in the wind and customers do not get the advanced notice they need. Under the new system, Entergy can call each home and business in the affected area and make sure their customers are aware of the work being done and the possibility that their electricity may be interrupted. Entegy has been pleased by the positive customer response to its new plan.

The Real Difference
As business continues to evolve and transform with the economy and the availability of information, customers are beginning to understand that they deserve to be serviced in certain ways. In fact, they are demanding it. Companies are becoming increasingly more focused on meeting customers' needs to stay ahead of the competitive curve. The way to do this is by implementing a comprehensive CIM solution to manage contact with customers across all channels of communication.

Candace Berman is communications manager of CELLIT, Inc., provider of the CCPRO CIM system used by Entergy. 

Entergy Corporation, headquartered in New Orleans, is a global energy company with power production, distribution operations and related diversified services. Entergy owns, manages or invests in power plants generating nearly 30,000 megawatts of electricity domestically and internationally, and delivers electricity to over 2.5 million customers in portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. It is also a provider of wholesale energy marketing and trading services.

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