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Utility software system increases efficiency

WILLMAR -- Upgrading a software system is usually time consuming and complicated, especially when it touches practically everything an organization does. When the Willmar Municipal Utilities decided the time was right to replace its nearly 30-yea...

WILLMAR - Upgrading a software system is usually time consuming and complicated, especially when it touches practically everything an organization does. When the Willmar Municipal Utilities decided the time was right to replace its nearly 30-year-old system with a more user-friendly operation, staff knew a lot of work was ahead.
“It was a challenge, but well worth it,” Stacy Stein, supervisor of customer service and metering, said after giving a detailed presentation on the new system during the Municipal Utilities Commission meeting Monday.
The system, by National Information Solutions Cooperative, puts all of the utility’s software programs under one umbrella, from billing and customer service to fleet management and material inventory.
“Overall it’s a pretty good system, lots of efficiencies,” said Mark Sangren, information systems coordinator.
The upgrade began in October 2014 and was completed and running in May 2015.
“The biggest reason we had to change was the retirements,” Stein said.
The old system was labor-intensive and required significant manual inputs to get the information needed. With so many longtime employees retiring, knowledge of how the old system worked went with them and there was little training and information available for new hires to use.
The new system, on the other hand, is easier to use and has training options built in.
“It gives them all the information they’ll need,” Stein said.
The utility chose the National Information Solutions Cooperative package because it offered the highest level of integration, met the utility’s functional requirements and provided good training, support and implementation.
“Change was desperately needed,” Stein said.
On the customer service and billing side, the upgrade system ensures a more accurate and efficient billing program.
“There is a lot more information available to the customer. There is a lot more transparency and it is easier to explain to the customer,” Stein said.
Customers can also get a taste of the new system with the updated online bill paying system.
A customer’s bill can be found online, along with usage information and payment options by using the SmartHub application found on the utility’s website. The app for SmartHub can also be downloaded onto a customer’s phone or tablet.
“We want to make it easy to have customers pay their bill,” Stein said.
Customers can drop off their payments at the utility offices or in three drop-off box locations. There is also automatic bank pay and pay by phone. “It is very successful,” Stein said. The utility has already seen its collections rise while customer penalties have decreased.
“I think customers are already seeing some benefits,” Commission Chairman Dan Holtz said.
Unlike the old system, which was custom designed and owned by the utility, the new program is owned by the cooperative. The utility pays monthly fees for each module it uses.
“The efficiencies they give us far outweigh the extra costs,” said Wes Hompe, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager.
Stein said the new system will be able to keep up with the ever-changing utility business with future enhancements, allowing the Willmar utility to continuing providing exceptional customer service and efficiency.
“As our utility changes and grows the software is flexible enough to meet our needs,” Stein said.

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Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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