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"Most of the other middleware solutions we looked at would have required us to modify our CIS software. Because MitemView is non-invasive, using it cut development time considerably. MITEM was able to prototype our system requirements in just two days!"

Andy Quick
Technical Manager
SQPC Project
Entergy

 

MITEM Case Study - Entegy News Article - Taking IT to the Streets

Re-printed from UTILITIES it Magazine May/June 1999 Vol. 4, No. 3

Thanks to a new system at Entergy, payments made at convenience stores and gas stations are now posted in real-time

Like other energy utilities seeking to cut costs and improve service in anticipation of retail competition, Entergy closed its satellite business offices a few years ago and hired a specialist to accommodate customers who prefer to pay their bills at a local grocery or convenience store or gas station. The replacement system deployed by the New Orleans (La)-based parent of four electricity and telecom services providers to keep bill paying convenient was called the Quick Payment Center (QPC) and used American Payment Systems (APS), Hamden, Conn, to handle walk-in payers. For this service, Entergy paid a per-transaction fee to APS and a fee to each participating merchant.

Although QPC actually made it more convenient for Entergy customers to pay their bills--by letting them do so at any of 600 locations, and not just during normal business hours--it soon became clear that the system had a fatal flaw. Volume wasn't the problem--which is somewhat surprising, considering that one-third of the 2.5-million customers served by Entergy's four electricity distributors pay their bills in person, requiring the parent company to process 9.6-million walk-in transactions each year. QPC's problem was that it didn't operate in real time.

Because QPC couldn't extract a customer's account number from Entergy's customer information system (CIS) on the spot by entering a name or address, customers had to bring in their invoice or know their account number to pay their bill at a QPC-equipped retailer. That made paying in person less convenient. But QPC's non-real-time operation had even more deleterious impacts on service and costs--the two issues the system was intended to address. Because the system did not post payments in real time, customers had to call Entergy's call center with their receipt number after paying their bill to validate the transaction. Often, customers who had paid up had their service cut off in a few days anyway. That led to lots of bad feelings, costly calls to service reps, and the generation of equally costly reconnect service orders.

Entergy's Smart Quick Payment Center System

Quick and Clean

To solve these serious service and cost problems, in the spring of 1998 Entergy kicked off a crash project to replace QPC with Smart QPC--a real-time system. The utility's top management imposed a seemingly impossible deadline on Entergy's IT crew. "We were given less than six months to design, build, and deploy," recalls Andy Quick, the SQPC project's technical manager.

Time wasn't the project's only major constraint. "Because its terminals would be installed in retail stores and might be operated by clerks unfamiliar with computers," Quick explains, "the system had to be very easy to use and very reliable. At first, we considered using full-function PCs with browsers as system terminals, but we soon ruled out this option because of its [ease-of-use] problems and high maintenance costs," he adds.

In the end, Entergy selected two back-end servers--the redundancy provided reliability and load balancing--from Citrix Systems Inc, Fort Lauderdale, Fla, and Winterm thin clients (with no floppy or hard drive) from Wyse Technology Inc, San Jose, Calif, for the SQPC locations. Why Wyse? According to Quick, "the Winterms have no moving parts--all they really are is a keyboard, a monitor, and a modem--so they stay up even in the toughest retail environments. After dialing a local number, they get hooked into Entergy's fiber network. So the Winterms' only telecom cost is the price of a standard business line."

For the tough job of posting payments to one of its four CISs in real time, Entergy decided on a messaging-oriented middleware solution--MitemView--from MITEM Corp, Menlo Park, Calif. Why MITEM? Says Quick, "most of the other middleware solutions we looked at would have required us to modify our CIS software. Because MitemView is non-invasive, using it cut development time considerably. MITEM was able to prototype our system requirements in just two days!"

SQPC was designed with expansion in mind. Each of its two MITEM servers and two Citrix servers were initially configured to host 50 sessions. But Entergy has since reconfigured the system so that each server now can host 150 sessions. SQPC first went "live"--only six months after it was conceived--at 160 SQPC locations in urban areas, because customers in cities are more apt to pay their bills in person. Now that the servers have been upgraded, however, Entergy is looking to replace all 600 of its QPC terminals with Smart QPCs.

The Payoff

For Entergy, SQPC's ability to post payments in real time has already produced substantial benefits. One is that paying bills in person using SQPC is now more convenient than with QPC. Customers who pay their bills at any of the 160 stores where the new system has been installed need no longer bring in or know their account number; the new system is smart enough to look them up by name, address, phone number, or social security number, and even provide their current account balance.

Another, more important, benefit relates to customer service. Because SQPC alerts the local distribution affiliate's CIS immediately upon receiving a walk-in payment, Entergy customers paying delinquent bills through the new system no longer have their power cut off by mistake. In addition to fostering customer loyalty, this benefit also reduces the utility's operating costs. Entergy expects that SQPC will reduce erroneous disconnects by 42% and ensuing calls to its call centers by 50%, saving it millions of dollars in service-rep and field-technician productivity annually.

Edited by John Javetski
(C) 1999 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.



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