After more than a hundred years serving customers at a comfortable pace, Sterling Municipal Light Department found that meeting the demands of their 3,700 residential, commercial and industrial customers was becoming increasingly complex. The rise of rooftop solar, thermal energy storage units and a variety of rate plans including time-of-use all challenged the municipal utility to find a way to manage smarter and to meet customers’ changing needs.
In 2013, Sterling decided to renovate systems across their entire enterprise. Within three years, this small-town Massachusetts utility would add a new computer system, a new metering system, a new accounting system and a new billing system.
The aggressive move to automation could have been a recipe for a disaster, with too many changes coming too fast for a small group of employees who were adapting to highly technical equipment. One key to success was a disciplined approach, built on SEDC’s UPN integrated CIS, BIS, and CC systems and practical training. With it, Sterling not only survived but prospered. Today they reap the benefits daily from a more efficient digital system.
“Throughout the process, change was a constant around here. But it’s worked for the better,” said Sean Hamilton, general manager of Sterling Light Municipal.
To migrate Sterling’s billing to the new automated system utilityPOWERnet (UPN) from SEDC, the utility had SEDC integrators and trainers on site for several weeks. They applied the suite of integrated billing (CIS), accounting (BIS), and capital credit (CC) utility software quickly — then began the real work of ensuring workers understand and feel comfortable with the new, high-tech tools.
SEDC worked closely with the full range of Sterling employees, from operation supervisors to the general manager. They helped overcome any discomfort with technology and trained customer service and field personnel to use the single point of access to carry out their distinct roles.
Hamilton reflected, “When you’ve got a routine for so many years, and then suddenly the routines change, it takes getting used to. Anytime you’re in a major transition like this you review all your accounts, make sure they are up to date, the proper information is there.” Simultaneously replacing all the utility’s meters, deploying the new AMI systems for managing meter data, and overhauling the billing and customer accounts systems, was intense. As Hamilton put it, “There’s a lot going on there.”
SEDC brought the tools and the training together for Sterling. “They were very knowledgeable, a great staff; they did a great job. They answered all our questions. They really did a good job helping us transition over,” said Hamilton.
“Customers are definitely happier,” Hamilton said. The streamlined approach brings meter data in faster, reduces the cost of billing and makes new choices in payment plans possible.
Sterling’s old drive-by meter-reading process pulled data more or less on a monthly basis, took up to four days to bring into the office and up to three more days to process. The new system pulls data twice a month and processes it in about 90 minutes. “The reads are more consistent, which customers like,” Hamilton said. “They don’t want 26-day read one month and a 34-day read the next.”
“The cost of processing the bills is much less,” Hamilton said. The combined impact of the AMI and CIS/BIS systems has slashed the cost of billing. “I’d say it’s 25 percent of what it used to be. That’s a rough estimate.”
“We now offer half a dozen different payment options, from walking in the door to automatic deposit, to credit cards. So we’re quite a bit more personalized now.”
Keeping Pace with the Future
“You know, for so many years you move along at one speed, now things are changing. The SEDC tools have allowed us to operate more efficiently,” Hamilton said. “That’s the easy part. With the extra time, we have more time to tend to customers and the needs of the department.”
Now convinced of the power of smart tools to improving services to customers, Sterling is automating its workforce management with Futura GIS, transitioning the worksheets, timesheets and inventory tools to Futura GIS to gain additional efficiencies in their fieldwork.