Electricity and Paper – Why Electrical Co-operatives Are Turning to ECM Software
When we turn on a light switch, we often take for granted that there was a time when large parts of the United States did not have electricity. Thanks to investments made during the New Deal and after, rural and more sparsely populated areas of the United States were brought on to the grid. Today, more than 900 not-for-profit electrical co-operatives serve 42 million members in 47 states, and they do this by maintaining and providing this essential service.
Electrical co-operatives are unique in that they are governed by seven principles. Arguably the most important of these, that their customers are members, is critical to the customer service and affordable cost of the power they provide.
But, unfortunately, recent fluctuations in energy prices have affected their ability to provide electricity at an affordable price. The rising prices at the pump have had a ripple effect on a number of fuels, often causing other fuels, coal, natural gas and propane, to rise in price as well.
When a typical private sector business experiences a rise in materials costs, it raises its prices to keep up. Electrical co-operatives, by contrast, have to react more like a governmental entity – they look for ways to cut costs to match changes in their overall financial picture. This could mean anything from declining tax revenue to increasing costs of operations. Again, they strive to provide power at the lowest cost they can because their customers are their members.
Over the years, they have maintained this level of affordable power by having small staffs that take customer service very seriously. But, as the pricing pressures continue to increase, maintaining this balance is becoming nearly impossible.
Recently, we attended a conference for electrical co-operatives. Right from the get-go, the co-ops were discussing opportunities to maintain this balance. And, most of their attention was focused on creating more efficiencies within a single process: signing up a new member account.
When electrical co-ops add a new residential electrical account, they receive an application and collect and review a number of other documents along with it. In the meantime, they have to also follow compliance requirements for storing documents to demonstrate that their staff has the proper certifications to do critical jobs around power lines and power generation. With all of these barriers, like so many other processes, things wait while documents are being reviewed. And sometimes, with so much work, things fall through the cracks.
What started as a discussion about maintaining member service took a seemingly unlikely turn to IT, namely enterprise content management (ECM) software. It was really interesting to see how receptive the electrical co-ops were to learning about the direct tie the software has to member service. Some of the benefits of automating the new member account opening process they discussed were:
- Saved staff time for researching issues or providing even better customer service when new or existing members need assistance
- Quickly identifying missing documents and confirming that the documents aren’t lost
- Enhanced security of member information like social security numbers, which also relieves co-op staffs from the burden of photocopying, filing and storing paper
As electrical co-operatives continue to seek increased efficiencies to achieve their missions, it’s clear that IT will play a greater role. It may seem incongruous to explore technologies like document management, but, in looking at the benefits, the technology will be critical to helping them preserve the most important principle of all – great member service at an affordable price.