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2020 was an interesting year for municipalities and local governments to say the least.
The year has caught many of us off guard for several reasons, but with our day-to-day work in. When the year started, we could all continue working as we've worked the same way we've always worked.
However now going into the offices we know, and love isn't an option for many of us and the impacts are catastrophic for everyone from administrators to utility directors all the way to the great and hardworking service people.
Yet, billings still needed to continue for utility customers, and they did continue despite the amount of uncertainty that existed in everyone's world.
The future of utility work is changing right before our eyes. Which leads to an interesting thought experiment....
What will just our little world of utility billing look like in the next ten years?
What will be the most important aspects of the day to day for those who work for utilities and municipalities?
What will be the most important aspects of a system that can keep up with the demands of an increasingly remote and flexible workforce.
And more importantly, what can you do today that keeps you ahead of the curve?
If 2020 has taught us anything it's that every piece of software we use needs to be accessible from anywhere in the world.
When the pandemic hit and offices around the country were shifting to remote work, we heard from many customers that they were having to figure out ways to retrofit processes or VPN through slow connections into existing server-based systems to keep employees safe.
Others were having to quickly adjust offices and workspaces for social distancing and employee safety and health.
That sounds horribly inefficient. There should be a better way, right?
Cloud based software is something that is going to be increasingly vital as the world shifts and advances post-pandemic over the next ten years.
The 5G (and eventually 6G) revolutions combined with changes coming to mobile devices will mean that increased employees will be looking for software solutions that can work just as effectively in the grocery store line as the home office, even if that office is on a beach somewhere miles away from their local areas.
Cloud based software has been around for decades in the private sector but is just beginning to make its way into the public sector and it is already proving a much more cost-effective way to run utility billing departments.
Always up to date data, easy access, and ease of use software is a huge gain for efficiency. Onboarding can also be done quickly and on devices that employees already own and are used to working on.
All that is needed to work is a device that connects to the internet with a good browser. If an emergency comes up while they're at home, they're still able to login even if they left the work computer at the office.
In the next ten years employees will have freedoms and flexibilities to work from anywhere with cloud-based software, but how will we make sure that the freedom found in cloud based continues to protect consumer data and personal information?
It seems like more we hear about data breaches, impacting everyone from big pharma to local school districts.
In the next ten years, security will become even more important for every area of the public and private sector. Hackers are getting increasingly sophisticated. The public sector needs to be able to keep up with data privacy and security at a pace that stays one-step ahead of whoever may be attempting to breach it.
In the next ten years those who have not invested in security and privacy will be impacted not only by increased security risk but also by losing out on consumer trust.
Digital natives are beginning to funnel into the public sector, and they value security not as an added benefit of a cloud-based software product, but a basic expectation from every piece of software that is interacted with.
With the use of that software, both from inside the municipality and outside as customers, upgrades and updates will be expected to happen in the backend of the product.
No more will users have time to wait for an updated version of the system to be updated on their specific machine by overtaxed IT personnel to get the latest and most secured versions.
Updates and upgrades will have to take place constantly in the background and be available instantaneously on login.
That security and peace of mind will also be important for your customers as the expectation for a more personalized experience will become standard.
Recently I had to get my windshield replaced. After a seamless conversation with my insurance and a great drop-off experience at a shop, I called to check on the status of my vehicle. The general, national, 800 number system recognized my phone number and routed me to the exact technician who was working on my vehicle who, before I could even ask, told me to head on back to the shop and that my car would be done by the time I got there.
Over the next ten years, this kind of experience will become less the exception and more the norm in the public sector, particularly for those services that the public interacts with often.
Excellent customer service and personalized experiences will be the cornerstone of every organization, public and private, in the next ten years.
What is going to make that happen for utilities and municipalities will be software that is easy to use and full of meaningful, up to date data that is quick to navigate for customer reps on the phone. When prospects call, the system that handles your billing should be able to quickly pull up information about the customer including whatever the potential reason for their call is.
Companies will need to remined readers to satisfy consumer demands and keep customer satisfaction scores high.
Besides that, paying bills and checking on statuses will be expected to be easy and seamless.
Customers will expect to be able to quickly login to an online portal and access every piece of their data from consumption to previous billing statements to quickly make payments by account number or even a picture of their bill.
In the future utility payments for customers will have to be as easy and seamless as any other service they interact with.
One thing we have seen in the past ten years has been a wide range of amazing software solutions that are highly specialized in doing their job incredibly well. The software's that try to "do it all" tend to deliver well in one area but suffer in the rest. This trend will continue throughout the next ten years with better solutions available for specific problems.
Software cannot act alone in a silo anymore and still be expected to perform.
To give customers, the personalized experience they will continue to expect, your software suite will need to seamlessly integrate to allow the full picture of a customer's journey.
Open API's and native integrations will be a staple of utility billing software over the next ten years. As the Internet of Things (IoT) and networking speeds continues to advance, meters will get more sophisticated and allow for self-reporting to systems. Self-reporting meters, pipes with monitoring and flow rate control are not something that is coming in some utopian future but will be part of cities in the next ten years.
All of those "smart" devices will need to speak back to the platform handling your billing.
If your billing software doesn't communicate with your accounting software and metering software, then you will lose precious time, efficiency, and incur more costs to do the same things.
While ten years may seem like forever away, as you know, government software and processes tend to stick around for a while.
The investments that are made today could very well impact the profitability of your utility departments ten years in the future.
Even without the financial benefits, the efficiency benefits of moving to a secure, cloud-based solution that is easy to use for internal and external customer service reps is crucial for municipal utilities right now.
Investing in technology and staffing that can stand the test of time, is upgraded constantly, and has the flexibility and security to handle your customer's needs now is crucial for success in 2020 and 2030.