Meter reading is the critical first step in the revenue collection process. For most utilities, meter reading is a labour intensive activity. While the use of automated meter reading (AMR) technologies is increasing, the majority of meters are still read manually once a month. Any errors or delay in the meter reading process negatively impacts customer satisfaction.
Not only is it critical to effectively and efficiently read meters every month, but the meter reader also plays an important community relations role as a ‘gatekeeper’ who looks for leaks, problems, hazards, safety issues, while also serving as a neighbourhood watch. For many customers, the meter reader is often the only utility employee ever seen. These customer touch-points form the basis of customer opinion. The meter reader position is usually an entry-level job — a planned stepping-stone into the company.
As such, meter reading departments can incur high turnover, thereby increasing the cost to hire and train effective and efficient meter readers, and ultimately increasing the cost to read a meter. With all the changes in the industry and the economy, most utilities have been forced to reduce operating costs. At the same time, companies are being asked by regulators, customers, members, and shareholders to increase customer service and satisfaction – essentially to ‘do more with less’.
This is a daunting challenge for any organisation. Utilities are also faced with the growing need for more timely access to energy usage information to support real-time pricing initiatives, load forecasting, demand side management, load control, competition, and customer demand. Additionally, status and usage information is needed on an event basis to improve reliability, power quality, and to identify outages. These more complex data requirements are driving the need for advanced metering systems, smart metering, and further automation.
Clearly the meter reading organisation is evolving with the introduction of automation. The diversity of metering and AMR equipment, complexity of accounts and billing, the challenges of service territory, and needs of different customer classes dictate different solutions for different companies. Regardless of the implementation rate, the transition from manual to automation is challenging from both a technology and people perspective.
Routes must be consolidated and optimised, employee roles and responsibilities must change with changing priorities, performance measurement metrics must shift to accommodate the mix of automation and manual effort, and processes and systems change. Even after automation, metering devices must be visited periodically to ensure proper operation and to protect assets.
In this transition to automation and the quest for reduced operating expenses, most utilities are focusing on three basic approaches to meter reading improvement:
- Automated meter reading – some large-scale implementation as well as strategies to pinpoint ‘high read cost’ meters, unsafe meter locations, and highturnover premises. Some companies have automated ‘key accounts’ and commercial accounts to accommodate realtime pricing and/or prepare for the competitive market.
- Contract meter reading to reduce overheads, tackle seasonal peaks, and as a strategy to transition to automated meter reading.
- Reducing costs of manual reads through contract negotiations, rerouting, more sophisticated handheld equipment and meters, productivity improvement, and lowered overheads. Many have exhausted these options, and some have reduced costs to a point that makes it difficult to justify AMR for residential accounts.
The promise of automation, either partial or complete, remains the top plan for the future. Other automation plans indicate a continuing interest in route optimisation software and handheld technology upgrades.
Benchmark study of meter reading
To better understand how utilities are dealing with the challenges facing the meter reading function and its day-today operations, the Ascent Group conducted its third annual benchmarking project to evaluate meter reading performance and practices. Eighty-one utilities participated in the research.
The main objective of the study was to evaluate the various tactics and strategies used to read customer meters in order to identify best practices or opportunities for improvement. Secondary objectives included understanding:
- The practices linked to ‘best-in-class’ performance
- The range of performance by company and by industry segment
- How utilities are using technology to reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction
- Other effective process improvement or cost-reduction techniques
- How utilities measure individual, team, and centrelevel performance and encourage high productivity and performance
- The role of meter reading training and its impact on performance
- How companies are resolving the hard issues, such as inaccessible meters
- To know what is possible.
To facilitate the gathering of benchmark data and practices, a proprietary internet-based self-service benchmarking tool was created. Companies submitting benchmarking information received instantaneous online benchmark comparisons of their performance against the industry average.
What did we learn?
- Best performing utilities use AMR strategically to address inaccessible meters, unsafe meter locations, high turnover premises, and other high read-cost meters. 70% of the participants use AMR or a similar technology to remotely read meters in difficult access locations. Strategic deployment of AMR technology is an effective way to reduce cost, improve safety, and increase customer satisfaction. While a company-wide implementation may not be feasible, a strategic deployment to address problem meters can be very effective. AMR is the most popular ‘plan for the future’ mentioned by participants.
- Best performing utilities continually optimise routes to maximise productivity and reduce costs. The ‘best performers’ identified in this study reported continuous or frequent rerouting and route optimisation to maximise productivity and reduce costs. Companies with AMR implementations also stressed the importance of route consolidation and optimisation throughout the transition to automation. As long as there are routes to be read there will be room for optimisation. Utilities can gain 10 to 20% efficiency on a company-wide rerouting. Rerouting is critical in areas of high growth, after an acquisition or merger and during the transition to AMR.
- Best performing utilities implement clear and concise measures of meter reader performance and give employees a clear idea of job expectations and performance. The ‘best performers’ were deliberate in their measurement of employee, group, and departmental performance – cost, service, and productivity.Employees want to perform to expectation – they make sure they clearly understand what is expected, the measures that will be used, how they are collected and calculated, and how they impact performance. Performance measures will change in the transition to AMR – route expectations change, employees may be performing other duties in addition to reading meters, emphasis will be shifting to other priorities – so that expectations and measures should change accordingly.
- Best performing utilities encourage the right behaviour through incentive programmes and/or informal or formal reward programmes. Formal ‘cash bonus’ incentives are the most popular reward, and non-cash incentives, such as gift certificates, dinners, parking spots and trophies, are the next popular. Best performing utilities train and equip meter readers, providing them with the tools, safety equipment, clothing, and training to do the job right the first time.Effective classroom and on-the-job training improves overall accuracy. The analysis shows a direct correlation between increased training, especially on-the-job training, and reduced errors, up to a point. Companies reporting shorter than average training programmes tended to have higher error rates, skip rates, and increased unit cost. Only one-third of participants reported delivering refresher training to meter readers.Refresher training is an effective way to keep employees up to date on technical and customer service skills as well as address seasonal challenges, difficult customers, bad dogs, and other work challenges. There should be investment in the front line, providing them with the tools, equipment, and training to get the job done right the first time. They should be equipped and trained to handle all situations. They should understand the customer perspective and how their job fits into the overall picture of customer service and satisfaction.
- Persistence, focus, and technology are keys to resolving difficult-to-access meters. Inside and inaccessible meters continue to challenge the effectiveness of utility meter reading organisations. In this panel, inaccessible meters ranged as high as 43% of total meters.
Companies reporting significant improvement in the reduction of chronically inaccessible meters have established a dedicated working group or organisation to focus on communication and resolution efforts. These working groups serve to establish and communicate policy, enforce policy, and provide follow-through until resolution.
Key success factors for resolving difficult-to-access meters include:
- AMR or remotely read meters
- Dedicated resources to address the chronic issues
- Performance metrics that hold meter readers accountable for getting the reading
- Proactive communications with the customer.
Measure and track performance
Utilities are still reading meters manually and are likely to be reading them manually for some time. In the meantime, companies are challenged to read meters efficiently and effectively. As a cost reduction and service improvement initiative, many utilities are strategically deploying AMR, especially in high read-cost situations.
This trend will continue until the cost of AMR becomes more attractive for the residential meter. AMR implementation remains the top plan for the future for this utility panel. Other automation plans indicate a continuing interest in route optimisation software and handheld technology upgrades. The meter reading processes, both people and technology-driven, must be effective and efficient.
Work tasks, route standards, and systems must be reviewed periodically to identify opportunities for improvement. In order to improve, performance must be measured and tracked. This includes individual measures of performance as well as group or departmental measures. Employees must understand the importance of their role in customer satisfaction — through accurate readings and bills, good company relations, and efficiently read routes.
This importance should be communicated clearly and reinforced through performance metrics and rewards and incentives. Benchmarking is an effective technique to understand level of performance as well as improvement opportunities. Not only may one learn more about how one’s peers approach similar work tasks, one often learns more about one’s own organisation simply by participating in the measurement process. The point is, just do it. Both the process and the results will benefit one’s organisation.