by Maanda Ramutumbu


Empowering Municipalities with a People-First Approach

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Addressing the City of Johannesburg’s billing crisis isn’t going to be an easy task, however, it is possible. It is clear that the City’s objective is to provide a reliable, efficient, people-focused solution – the same goal held by any large city seeking to provide effective services to its residents.

A few key pillars form the basis of any well-run public utility or city. Among them:

  • Trust between the city and its residents must be established and maintained
  • Consumption data must be accurate
  • Billing information needs to be managed correctly

Here’s how any city, and the municipalities within it, can make the transition from billing crisis to billing control.

Build strong relationships with customers

The most fundamental issue is this: municipalities need to build strong relationships with rate payers. Inaccurate billing can quickly erode this critical connection. In addition, dysfunctional communication channels and the inability to resolve disputes, queries, and errors can contribute further to eroding the relationship. The use of estimated figures instead of actuals can further compound mistrust, leading to rate payers paying their bills begrudgingly and in the worst cases, defaulting on payments.

The first step towards building residents’ confidence in the system is to ensure that bills sent out are correct. The intelligent use of technology can facilitate prompt and accurate billing – globally, Accenture is advising utilities to adopt technologies such as smart meters in order to improve consumption accuracy. Meters of this kind not only transmit data on real-time consumption of services but also correlate consumption data with property information. However, it is important that the business case for such initiatives makes sense because smart meters are not a panacea for all problems.

The second step towards building residents’ confidence involves reforming the accounts collection process. Collections can be improved by implementing prepaid metering, as such systems require upfront payment for services, reducing the need to manage debtors. Where billing remains on a post-paid basis, convenient communication channels and rapid query resolution become particularly paramount.

Use digital to empower people

Accurate billing and efficient collections – while critical – form only the foundation for any top global public utility. By leveraging the power of technology in tandem with the skills of committed people, longer-term possibilities come into focus – fundamentally people-orientated systems that allow cities to lead in a new era of digitisation; fluidity and changing customer expectations.

The first element involves bringing a metro in line with residents’ changing expectations. Technology has become so ubiquitous in most of our lives. It is only when we cannot use a digital channel to transact or communicate with a service provider that we realise the degree to which we take digital interaction for granted. 

The reality is that many cities globally have yet to fully embrace digitisation. Other service providers – banks, retailers, insurance companies and more – have realised that allowing customers to communicate, pay and lodge account queries through smartphone apps, social media, and the web is a must. When customers experience these digital channels in the banking, retail, and telecommunication sectors, customers are somewhat disappointed when they compare the level of service with other sectors (such as utilities and metros) who do not provide the same choice of engagement channels.

Accommodating people’s shifting expectations strengthens trust. Furthermore accommodating the shifting expectations acknowledges and values the type of interaction channels customers prefer to engage with service providers. The service providers also show that they have a clear understanding of the different segments of their market. Those residents who would still prefer to interact telephonically or in person to do so while those who prefer alternative channels are now catered for.

More broadly, better control of the data (both personal, property- and usage-related) coming into the system – and then intelligent management of that data thereafter – is key. Improving governance of the revenue-value chain is critical too. A practical example includes ensuring that commercial, residential and farm rates are correctly assigned and stratified.

The long-term goal

Holistic reforms have the ability to renew the relationship between a metro and its rate payers. Practically, such reforms mean ensuring the accuracy of customer details and consumption readings; enabling rapid updates of customer information; and ensuring rapid query and dispute resolution. Proactive changes may also include instituting a system of notifications of pending and completed meter readings.

While the right tech has an important part to play, people are an even more critical element. A weighty issue faced by many cities is one of human capacity – ensuring a large enough, well-trained, committed and honest workforce is crucial to the optimal functioning of a billing system. On the fraud side, specialised teams are key to reducing losses due to illegal connections.

Moving towards the new

Accenture uses tech to put people first – the new frontier of digital experiences is technology designed specifically for individual human behaviour. The questions being asked are: How do we help our clients to lead in new ways of doing business? How do we enable those we work with to leverage the power of digital in order to address truly human problems?

Part of this approach incorporates design thinking, a key element of which involves understanding a given problem from the customer’s service experience and then leveraging in-house expertise to find a solution that really sticks – a process Accenture has adopted when approaching the challenges faced by utilities in many parts of the world.

When it comes to building a strong relationship between a city and its residents, ensuring trust in the system, involving the right people, ensuring accuracy and maintaining high levels of social responsibility are all critical. Although efficient solutions are likely to be underpinned by tech, they must ensure that people – the city’s residents – are put first.

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This edition

Issue 68