MITEM Case Study - Oklahoma Natural Gas
Oklahoma Natural Gas (ONG), a regulated subsidiary of ONEOK Inc. (NYSE:OKE), is a Tulsa-based natural gas distribution company that currently supplies more than 740,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. The pending acquisition of the natural gas assets of Western Resources, Inc., will add additional territory in northeast Oklahoma and a substantial part of Kansas. ONEOK will become the 8th largest natural gas distribution company in the U.S, serving approximately 1.4 million customers.
In 1991, with deregulation of the gas industry on the horizon, ONG began to examine ways to improve its operations. "It became clear that with deregulation, ONG was in the delivery and service business of natural gas as a product and not in the natural gas business with service as an afterthought" said Charles Moore, Manager of Systems Development. "This caused us to focus on the information system requirements in order to deliver excellent service in a consistent manner. ONG installed the Actron Customer Service System (CSS) in 1989 and it has undergone substantial modifications" said Moore.
ONG initiated a call centre automation project which concluded that only minor modifications were required for the billing and accounting functions of CSS, but significant changes would be necessary to support the objective to increase its customer service levels. The automation project identified the addition of several new features including an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system, screen pops, and intelligent call routing.
In addition, the character-based system [CSS] did not offer an easy way to handle certain transactions such as Order Scheduling, Billing Adjustments, and Detailed Account Inquiry. For example, changing an appointment for service or the follow-up action on a bill was difficult, even for experienced Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). It was clear that to support the call centre automation initiative, a re-engineering of the CSS presentation was needed.
The two main call centres, staffed with 60 CSRs, are located in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. They handle 70 percent of ONG's call volume while the remaining 30 percent are handled in regional offices.
Over time, each CSR had undergone substantial training on the use of the character-based 3270 screens. "The most experienced operators were comfortable with the system of codes and menus presented by the mainframe software" said Call Centre Manager Scott Shepherd, "but with attrition and changes in our business, retaining personnel and the high cost of training were becoming a major challenge." For example, service activation required a CSR to navigate up to six screens, each with their own set of codes, in a fixed sequence. The opportunity for error by a novice user existed at every keystroke. More complicated transactions like rescheduling a Service Call, Account Maintenance, and Rebilling posed challenges even for the more experienced CSR. The more involved the activity, the longer the transaction and call times became, resulting in poorer customer service.
Several technical options were considered to deliver a workflow which more closely matched the process of customer service. Options ranged from a three-tier Client/Server architecture to face-lifting the system with a graphical user interface (GUI). ONG concluded that the Client/Server option would not provide the power, stability, security, or performance to which ONG was accustomed. Reclaiming the mainframe functionality using an HLLAPI based tool would not offer the developers sufficient design flexibility, robustness, and performance to build the user functionality and workflow which was required.
A superior alternative was MITEM Corporation's MitemView. It comprises a high performance message management system which exchanges information between a Windows application executing on a PC and the CSS mainframe system. The MitemView technology provided the foundation for ONG to design all of the advantages of a client/server architecture without sacrificing the performance and reliability of their mainframe system.
In early 1995, ONG assembled a team of three developers and six call centre CSS users to identify the critical areas for improvement. With the focus on complete customer care, the requirements were used in the design and specification of the new user interface for use by the CSRs. The result was what ONG called the "Dream Screen" (figure 1) which included all payment, billing, and service activity. Colour coding was used to differentiate various account status, warnings, and other critical information. The design was optimized for the most frequently used and difficult transactions.
Figure 1 - "Dream Screen"
Figure 2 - Scheduling
ONG began development of the Dream Screen based on the user requirements, using MitemView as the middleware to the mainframe system. "By participating in the design phase and having an in-depth knowledge of CSS, we eliminated many potential mistakes in the design and implementation" said Mike Pride, Development Analyst. "We were confident that we could achieve a fully functional application using the tools we had selected" he added. The core development team consisted primarily of traditional mainframe COBOL programmers. The team was trained in Windows, Visual Basic, and the MitemView technology. To help with the critical design and development issues, ONG used the services of Cornerstone Consulting, an independent integration firm specializing in distributed computing and MitemView. The first phase of the development, the Dream Screen and six subsidiary windows, was delivered in just 90 days. The Cancel/Rebill and major functions including Maintenance, Trouble Order, and the New Service Orders were also delivered.
The design resulted in a reduction in initial training time from two weeks to one. In addition, the time to competency and accuracy of the CSR was similarly affected. Seventy-five percent of all calls are now handled by information on the Dream Screen. "Accessing customer information is effortless compared with the screen surfing under the old system" said Shepherd. The Dream Screen is comprised of customer information from up to fifteen 3270 CICS screens.
Overall the project has been a tremendous success. "We have reduced call times, cut CSR training time in half, and improved customer service. We were also able to realize a reduction of transactions on the mainframe. Most importantly, we have been able to lengthen the life of our legacy system, adding functionality and process improvements." said Moore.
ONEOK is planning to extend the use of the new CSS GUI to support new customers from the Western Resources acquisition. The system will then be used by up to 150 CSRs, supporting about 1.4 million customers throughout the states of Oklahoma and Kansas.
In addition, ONG is evaluating other application areas where MitemView can deliver business advantage. These include employee self-service for access to human resources and payroll systems, and improvements to the financial accounting systems.
"We took a concentrated approach to the CSR functional view in providing access to CSS. We analysed past call patterns to assess the information requirements which should be presented to the CSR on the first window."
Manager, Systems Development, ONEOK, Inc.
"The performance of MitemView has caused users to believe that the mainframe has been upgraded. This is a real advantage for us, since all the other solutions we examined had significant performance penalties in accessing the mainframe."
Programmer Analyst, ONEOK, Inc.