The prospect of reducing costs and developing new merchandising opportunities were compelling reasons for South East Water to outsource its billing systems onto the Web. SE Water has traditionally communicated with customers using paper and telephone, which are expensive channels. Every bill that is not paid by direct debit costs the minimum of the price of a stamp, plus the price of fulfilment. And for those customers who wait until the final reminder before stumping up, this cost is duplicated.
Added to this overhead are the added costs and complexities of managing these channels. More than 70% of SE Water's customers are billed on the rateable value of their house and as a result they get their bills in February and March. The utility's customer enquiries peak around that time and despite careful planning, call volumes cannot be anticipated accurately.
"Logically, if we send a letter it should arrive the following day, but even if we try to stagger the bills, we still get unaccounted-for peaks," says Steve Buck, director of commercial services at SE Water. While it's hard to isolate billing costs, Buck says that customer service operations costs millions every year.
A few quick calculations showed that the utility could make a 90% saving on all billing and payments transacted over the Internet.
SE Water decided to buy the services on an ASP basis from iDesk, chiefly because it could be implemented straight away. By contrast, the other companies approached by SE Water - including a major financial institution - all had a concept that they wanted to develop with the utility. The current time frame for implementation is an extensive pilot during the summer followed by roll-out in September.
Outsourcing the entire project to iDesk made sense in terms of time-to-market and also the available pool of experienced Internet personnel on the market. "We would have had to recruit good-quality staff and that's easier said than done," points out Buck. Given that SE Water is based at Haywards Heath, it would also have meant paying London salaries. The contract represents a sure way of cutting back on continuing capital investment.
iDesk hosts every aspect of the billing process on its servers. This includes bill presentment and payment, direct debits and enquiries. The latter are routed through to the correct outlet in SE Water.
"We've just been through a look and feel sessions and we're keen to communicate our vigilance to customers. Part of our brand is that we look after our customers," concludes Buck.
Water tight: Security
IDesk's billing system is built on an Oracle Database and Sun Solaris 2.7 running Solant software. Apple Web Objects was used for development and the South East Water customer information system only required minor customisation.
Specifying and validating security to ensure that Web-based customer data is secure was crucial. "The ASP model used for the project brings additional issues with security over and above our internal IT infrastructure," explains IT director Mark Foulsham. "Before progressing in any depth with iDesk we had to assess both its physical security [hosted by Exodus] and virtual security [a Checkpoint firewall]. We are reviewing and addressing security on an ongoing basis even in this pre-pilot stage."
Bass turns to ASPs
Barbox was conceived by Bass Brewers as a way of automating ordering and was launched last July as a licence trade portal. The hub, which was developed by Isis software, automates such tasks as ordering and stocktaking. It also hosts applications for designing pub quizzes and ordering entertainment acts.
An early user is Rochdale Transport Club where, for steward Neil Gretton, perhaps one of the surprises has been ease-of-use. "I'm coming up to retirement, and for me technology was a big deal," he says. From this starting point, Gretton now uses Barbox to organise his week.
The advantages are to do with convenience and speed. Gretton uses technology for nearly everything and finds the ASP provides granular financial information that makes a big difference to how he manages the business.