Is It Time You Took a Closer Look…?
In previous issues of the Utility Information Pipeline, I’ve made mention of conducting a business review. Let’s take a look at what an outside business review entails and some reasons why you might consider conducting one.
Why should you consider an outside business review?
Does conducting an outside business review mean that your business office isn’t well run? Not at all!
A business review is not unlike a financial audit – just because you conduct an annual audit doesn’t mean there’s any monkey business going on with your books, it just ensures that things are being done right. In the same manner, conducting a business review is a way for management and your board to ensure that your business office is functioning efficiently.
In general, utilities fall into one of two categories – those that are satisfied with their billing software and those that aren’t (or aren’t sure if they should be).
If you are satisfied with your billing software
If you are satisfied with your billing software, contact your software vendor to see if they have a consultant who is qualified to conduct a business review. Are there benefits if person conducting the review is affiliated with your software provider? I would argue “yes” – there are many things about your software that an outside consultant wouldn’t have intimate knowledge of. Some items to consider are:
- Are you running the latest version of your software?
- Are you taking advantage of all the features the software offers?
- How long has it been since your staff has been trained by your vendor?
Software vendors publish updates and fix bugs in their software periodically, but not all businesses (not just utilities!) choose to install the latest update. Is it possible that something you have devised as a manual workaround to solve a problem has been fixed in a newer release of your billing software?
New software releases are often accompanied by release notes describing the bugs that were fixed and the new features were added in that release. Even if you have installed all the new updates as they became available, it’s very possible you overlooked a new feature described in the release notes that could save your office staff time and effort.
How long has it been since your staff has received training from your vendor? Utility Information Pipeline #14 addressed training new hires and what I call the “funnel effect”. If you have hired new staff since you installed your system, investing in some training is well worth it. Even if your current staff was all trained by your software vendor when the system was installed, refresher training is always helpful. Initial training tends to be focused on day-in, day-out processes and doesn’t always address other, more advanced features of the software.
If you’re unsure or not satisfied with your billing software
If you’re unsure if your billing software is doing all that it should for you, an outside business review provides an opportunity to learn how well it is meeting your needs.
If you aren’t satisfied that your current billing software can accomplish all that you want to do or that it doesn’t provide some of the latest features, conducting a business review can help make the business case to replace your software.
As a manager or office manager that has to convince a reluctant board that spending the money for new software is really worth the investment, an independent business review can be a great tool in helping make your case.
If you are a board member and you want to ensure that your office is being run as efficiently as possible, what better way than to commission an independent, outside business review?
What should an outside business review include?
A quality business review should be performed by a qualified consultant with knowledge of utility billing best practices and current trends in the industry. The consultant should thoroughly review the utility’s current business processes, office practices and utility policies and procedures. The outcome of the business review should include recommendations as to how the utility can improve customer service and achieve better efficiencies.
Why not conduct a business review internally?
Human beings, by our very nature, are creatures of habit. When we become accustomed to doing things a certain way, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that other options exist. Conducting a review internally is often done from the perspective of how things have always been done, without benefit of seeing the bigger picture or realizing that other options exist. An outside consultant has experience with many other utilities and brings that perspective and knowledge to the table when conducting a business review.
Conducting an outside business review provides the utility with an unbiased, objective opinion from an independent source. Conducting an internal review is often done, unfortunately, from the perspective of preserving the status quo rather than recommending changes when change is merited.
There are no political implications of unpopular recommendations from an outside consultant. Perhaps, as a manager, you’ve tried unsuccessfully to get your board to change a policy or fee you know needs to be changed. Bringing the issue up again could land you in political hot water, but having an outside consultant make the same recommendation won’t get you fired. It may, however, get the consultant fired, but that’s the nature of what we do!
© 2012 Gary Sanders