Victorian state-owned water corporation Yarra Valley Water has automated its formerly manual approach to processing relocations of residential renters in the expectation it will slash thousands of customer contacts every year.
The utility company provides water services to around 30 percent of Victoria’s population, or around 752,000 premises, servicing an area stretching from the inner eastern and northern suburbs of Melbourne through to the Yarra Valley.
A peculiarity of Victoria’s residential tenancy laws, combined with outdated workflows, meant customer service staff were manually entering paperwork relating to around 90,000 moves into billing systems each year.
A big drain on resources
Unlike most other states, Victorian water utilities have a direct customer relationship with both owners and their tenants.
While roughly 50,000 of the 752,000 premises serviced by YVW are rented, they represent a disproportionately large share of all customer interactions.
This is because while the average owner occupier moves once a decade, many tenants move house every six to 12 months. As a result, YVW processes around 90,000 tenancy changes each year.
Historically YVW handled those 90,000 requests by phone, a ‘dumb’ web form, email or by fax. Each request was then manually processed and entered into the utility’s billing system by staff.
“On receipt of a request, we manually organised a meter reading through our partner Skilltech, so we could prepare a final bill for the existing occupant. We would then manually create an account to move the new tenant in and move the old occupant out,” YVW CIO Leigh Berrell told iTnews.
More than half of those move requests were received through aggregators, and in many other cases, the requests came from a landlord or a real estate agent, rather than the tenant themselves.
“This sometimes led to us having incorrect tenant details, which could cause processing problems later,” Berrell said.
Given the amount of manual effort involved, automating the change of tenant process became an obvious priority for the company.
As a result, it developed a program that sees a meter read request automatically sent to Skilltech as soon as a tenant move request is placed by a customer.
As soon as the meter reading is conducted, the billing system is automatically updated to produce the final bill for the tenant moving out, and to set the starting read for the tenant moving in.
Customers wishing to set up online billing can opt to automatically place the request, and if a tenant is identified as a new customer, a welcome pack is dispatched to them automatically.
The project to create this system, which was delivered entirely using YVW’s in-house IT team, was also notable for being the first at YVW to be developed using the agile methodology.
“As an engineering-based firm, waterfall methodology was very ingrained. After all, if you’re building a reservoir or a new pipeline, you have to pretty much know the end result before you start,” Berrell said.
“At first there was some uncertainty about how it would work. Then we began introducing the stand-ups, scrums and Kanban charts and people saw how it would accelerate delivery and get them more involved."
Taking an iterative approach meant the IT team could keep both other YVW departments, and also external partners, involved in major decisions as work progressed.
Workflows for Victorians on the move
The platform was built using technologies already in use at YVW, adding APIs to allow aggregators to integrate with the utility's systems including its Oracle billing, middleware and web services platforms.
It also builds on the work YVW did on a customer self-service portal to its existing customers last year.
“Our first aggregator, Connectnow, went live in March 2015. Since then we have added three others: Fast Connect, Direct Connect and On The Move, and we are looking to add two more in the next month or so," Berrell said.
“Our initial hurdle was helping the aggregators justify their side of the investment. Unlike energy and gas companies who operate in a competitive marketplace and pay a commission for each tenant they sign up, we don’t pay the aggregators at all.
“The automation saves effort for the aggregators, and including YVW in their portfolio of utilities allows them to provide a more complete offering to their customers."
However, the process for relocating tenants is still not entirely automated.
“YVW still has to intervene for some requests. Exceptions occur when the customer-provided property address doesn’t match our property description, which is based on the Victorian government Landata system,” Berrell said.
“This occurs mostly for complex addresses that include floors or flat numbers within a complex. In this case, our customer service agents correct the address."
However, despite the occasional error, Berrell said the effort had already freed up significant customer service resources for other work.
“This has automated a high volume transaction which frees service staff to help customers solve the high-value problems that customers can’t solve for themselves, such as high bills or customers who require assistance to pay,” he said.
“YVW staffing effort to support tenant moves is now less than one person, to deal with exceptions and to take calls from customers who don’t realise the process is online.”