How One Co-op Helped Another Ease the Integration of Electric and Broadband Customer Service Functions

Infrastructure and operational efficiencies aside, engaging in a broadband venture still means entering a new industry. Among the many issues to work through is how to provide customer service in a different environment with unique issues. Do you use your existing customer service infrastructure? If so, how do you address the intricacies of adding a new service to what may be a legacy system? Do you run different systems or do you integrate them?

These were some of the questions facing United Electric Cooperative when it launched broadband service in its northwest Missouri/southwest Iowa service area. Fortunately, United Electric had an existing partnership with National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), which was uniquely qualified to help United Electric think through its issues and provide a solution. Graham Kaiser of CoBank sat down David Girvan, COO of United Electric Cooperative, and Jasper Schneider, vice president of member and industry at NISC, to discuss the challenges they faced and how they dramatically improved the co-op’s entire customer service function.

What unique solutions did United Electric and United Fiber need from a technology/software perspective for your broadband project?

David Girvan: What United needed most of all was software that would integrate the broadband operation’s billing and provisioning services. We needed one platform to take away the “swivel chair” tasks needed to connect and maintain a triple play service. The platform also needed to scale for future products and services, and be able to produce service orders and ticketing for day-to-day operations. We worked with National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) on the solution.

Jasper, tell us about National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC).

Jasper Schneider: NISC is a 50-year-old technology cooperative that serves both the rural electric utility and telecommunications markets. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, our story is about how these two industries continue to evolve and embrace technology. Our enterprise software solutions equip just about every employee at a member’s site with technology solutions. We credit our cooperative business model with our longevity, which has allowed us to focus on service to our members and foster a spirit of innovation. We have offices in Missouri, North Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin and have 1,200 employees.

Our customer service and support staff now have a much simpler and consistent process. Call times have been reduced and productivity per full-time employee has greatly increased.

How did the partnership between United and NISC come about?

DG: The partnership was originally forged when the subsidiaries’ parent company selected NISC’s billing platform many years ago. NISC has an excellent track record of developing solutions and being a leader when it comes to cooperative needs.

JS: As David mentioned, United Electric has been a member of NISC for some time. When they started to build out their fiber network with their subsidiary, United Fiber, it timed well with the development of our iVUE® Connect solution, which has broadband functionality. NISC was able to leverage its experience with both industries – electric systems and telephone systems. United was our development partner in building a solution that could serve those two industries using a single platform.

Tell us more about the problem that needed to be solved at United?

DG: The problem involved unifying all of our different broadband equipment and multiple software platforms into one interface. Going back to our initial challenge, the Connect platform by NISC was the first step to reigning in our processes and minimizing our employees’ work steps and greatly helping the customer experience.

JS: We helped United Electric solve the challenge of serving all of their members the same way, regardless of which service they use. When a United Electric member contacts them, they are able to see if they are an electric or broadband user, or both, using just one screen. This increases their efficiency and professionalism with their members.

What was the solution?

JS: We offered a cloud-based solution focused on customer service, making it easier for staff to assist members by finding information more quickly in a web-based, user-friendly environment.

DG: The solution creates a single billing/provisioning platform to manage and bill the entire sales process for our broadband business.

How has this affected United’s operations?

DG: We haven’t fully measured the impact but suffice to say our customer service and support staff now have a much simpler and consistent process. Call times have been reduced and productivity per full-time employee has greatly increased.

JS: As a cooperative ourselves, our goals are always the same as our members’ goals. We were pleased to help complement United’s fiber buildout and help them achieve their goals. We helped them to better serve their members and tackle the challenges of entering a completely new market – broadband – in a professional manner.

The solution also allowed United to do auto-provisioning, which makes it easier for their employees and members to quickly add or modify their broadband services. This solution also has the ability to streamline and manage broadband leads and proposals, which eliminated the more resource-intensive tracking methods used in the past. With the addition of our mobile solution, United was also able to provide a paperless process for managing new service installations.

Were there any challenges in implementing these solutions? How did you work through them?

JS: We were pleased that United was one of our development partners in this process. As a cooperative, our members often have a seat at the table in developing our technology solutions. The challenge was not only developing a product that didn’t exist in the marketplace, but merging two distinct industries, into one. We appreciated United’s input and patience with us as we developed iVUE Connect.

DG: Challenges are a given when it comes to integrating disparate platform with so many moving parts and getting them up and running together. Making sure that all our vendors – be it Calix or Momentum Telecom – worked together to get the integration right has probably been technically the most difficult. But, finding a partner that already had great relationships with these other vendors certainly made the process smoother.

Working together, we can fundamentally evolve this industry and serve our shared-members in ways we never have before.

How do United’s members benefit from this solution?

DG: Our members benefit firstly from the enhanced customer experience. The experience is now much more streamlined, and member service representatives can see all products and features from both business units in one software platform, cutting down on call time and potential member frustration. We see this as a future cost reduction as we continue training our frontline employees to competently help members in one call and become more efficient in our operations.

JS: United Electric and United Fiber also utilized NISC’s web and mobile applications. The mobile app is available through the iTunes and Google Play stores, and allows their members to submit payments, track their usage and interact with United wherever they may be.

How has your partnership with NISC evolved over the span of the broadband project?

DG: I think it has evolved greatly and, most certainly, positively. Serving as a beta site for the new product has given us a behind the curtain look at NISC and allowed us to tap into many of their resources. This has given us an opportunity to provide input into features that are needed, and NISC has tailored a product that fits a cooperative with a telecommunication subsidiary.

What lessons have been learned from this partnership?

JS: Even though NISC has operated in both the electric utility and telecommunications industries for 50 years, merging these two industries into a unified software platform is easier said than done. Our solution to do just that timed very well with the acceleration we are seeing from utilities offering broadband service.

We are thankful to have many development partners in this process.

DG: We have learned that processes can always be improved, and efficiencies can be gained from using the right software platform. Our billing platform is the bread and butter of our operation, and without a progressive partner that adapts to your ever-changing business needs, you’ll surely struggle to give standout service for which the cooperatives are known.

Without sounding trite, having a relationship with “partners” and not “vendors” is key. By having this relationship, we have been able to get our products set up and developed for our sometimes-niche needs. Knowing how your systems integrate with each other and your workflow requirements is key to picking the right solutions for your co-op and maintaining the cooperative ethos in whatever new business line you might pursue.

Anything else you would like to share?

JS: Broadband continues to be essential infrastructure, especially for rural America where it is not only a quality-of-life tool, but also an economic development driver. While the allure of offering broadband is strong, we always encourage our members to also recognize the enormous challenges and capital considerations of entering a new market. There are some great examples of utilities that have successful business models, such as United, that we encourage similar systems to study. NISC also encourages its members to consider partnerships where feasible and to embrace the shared experiences of national partners such as CoBank and NISC. Working together, we can fundamentally evolve this industry and serve our shared-members in ways we never have before.

David Girvan is the chief operating officer of United Electric Cooperative, where he has worked since 2011. He has been responsible for the design, build and management of United Electric’s technology assets, with his primary focus revolving around the aggressive deployment of commercial and residential fiber services through the co-op’s subsidiary, United Fiber. Prior to joining United Electric, he served as a consultant to the co-op on internal network infrastructure for two years, while working for a technology consulting firm in St. Joseph, Missouri. Mr. Girvan has more than 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, he moved to the United States in 2008. With almost two decades of experience with information technology, he has worked in many different roles including systems engineering, supervisory roles, software packaging and infrastructure builds. With significant international exposure, his career has been filled with project-based assignments for large companies like IBM, HP and other industry leaders. Mr. Girvan holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Technology from Northwest Missouri State University and recently completed his MIP Select certification from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Jasper Schneider is vice president of member and industry at National Information Solutions Cooperative with expertise in technology, law, finance and rural policy. Prior to joining NISC, Mr. Schneider led USDA’s Rural Utility Service as State Director in North Dakota, and served as acting Administrator in Washington, DC. He is also a former lawmaker, serving in the North Dakota Legislature. Previously, Mr. Schneider had a law practice and also started a successful technology company in the computer hardware industry. He also worked at Cisco Systems, prior to obtaining his law degree from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This interview was originally published in Broadband Partnerships: A Key to High-Speed Success for Rural Electric Co-Ops.