With all the buzz about the Smart Grid these days, anticipated customer service challenges have received scant mention. Reliability and grid infrastructure improvements have taken the headlines, but since customer service is such a costly and critical mission for the utility, getting it right on the day when the Smart Grid is switched on will take foresight and planning.

Or at least, it will take upgrades that will improve customer service and arm businesses and consumers with more information that will enable them to make more intelligent decisions concerning their energy usage for cost, energy efficiency and environmental purposes.

As utilities go about integrating all their IT systems in anticipation of new Smart Grid opportunities, it’s instructive to take a look at what can be done to upgrade customer service to the level it needs to be when an exploding array of pricing options become available to consumers.

Late last year EDS has published a case study about Avista an energy company in Spokane, Washington, that modernized its Web site to allow more customer self-service through interactive tools for usage monitoring, bill viewing and payment history. This was accomplished using Microsoft SharePoint as a unified web content management platform and portal and BizTalk as their Web services integration platform that ties the customer portal to their customer information system.

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The study says that: EDS has worked closely with Avista to launch a new Web portal that takes customers' billing and account management to a whole new level.

…the Web application allows customers to open and close accounts, make payments, update account information and address billing inquiries. What’s more, the solution provides innovative forecasting and modeling tools that give customers a complete view of their energy consumption, from usage history to changing behaviors and trends. In addition to offering a rich informational resource, the Web application provides an interactive tool for generating personalized energy snapshots. This third-party provided application lets customers define factors such as household size, square footage and lifestyle habits to project energy consumption for different scenarios.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of great spadework going on in the development of customer applications that make energy usage more transparent. It’s our hope this continues and creates a body of best practices that move us further toward the Integrated Utility of the Future. – Jon Arnold