Community Engagement

Elk River finds a software partner that it can grow with

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Located on three major highways and just 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Elk River, Minnesota, is positioned for growth. To stay at the forefront of progress, this city’s municipal utility is modernizing and streamlining its various systems known collectively as enterprise software, including functions such as billing, accounting, engineering, and outage management.

“We want to be on the front end,” Troy Adams, the public power utility’s general manager, says. “We want to provide our customers with what they want before they know that they want it.”

Elk River Municipal Utilities has 12,500 electric customers, nearly 87% in the city of Elk River. The utility also serves 5,500 water customers.

For the past couple of decades, growth has been a core strategic focus for ERMU. “The owners of a municipal electric utility, the customers, should see a return on their investment in the city infrastructure,” according to the utility’s website. Growth is the engine that provides improved economies of scale for services while lowering costs for customers, the utility notes.

That view is reflected in ERMU’s recent history. In 2015, ERMU finalized an agreement with their neighboring rural electric cooperative utility, Connexus Energy, for the orderly transfer of electric service territory which the cooperative served within the corporate boundaries of the city. Under the terms of that agreement, ERMU has welcomed approximately 2,000 customers that have been transferred over the past four years.

In October 2018, ERMU switched wholesale power providers, becoming a member of the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, a decision that was based on the greater operational control ERMU gained by having a seat on MMPA’s board and the lower rates made possible, in part, on MMPA’s green and young generation fleet.

With its electric service territory growth and its wholesale power supply locked in, ERMU is now looking at internal processes and enhancing customer experience.

After out-growing the capabilities of their previous billing and accounting software, in 2013 ERMU became a member of National Information Solutions Cooperative, a technology solutions partner. Though a medium sized public power utility, ERMU’s needs are complex because they bill for multiple services — electric, water, trash, storm water, franchise fees, and recycling. ERMU is working with NISC to integrate and streamline management of these services to improve internal efficiency while adding customer engagement options.

When ERMU made the decision to go with NISC, “the vision was clear: to have a software partner that can work with all aspects of the company,” Adams said.

“It is software we can grow with,” Jennie Nelson, ERMU’s customer service manager, says.

The Transition

ERMU began using NISC’s accounting software in August 2014 and their customer care and billing software in February 2015. These pieces of software handle everything from customer tracking and payments to billing, collections, and data collection. The utility can automatically send customers bill reminders and updates, as well as warnings about delinquent bills, to improve payment responses.

NISC’s billing software works in concert with its accounting software to provide a single point of entry for applications from general ledger and financials to accounts payable and payroll.

Since switching to NISC, ERMU has been able to make “great strides” in inventory and electronic tracking of service orders, edits to customer accounts, and account adjustments, says Adams. The biggest benefit he sees, however, is NISC’s SmartHub online platform, which gives customers access to all of their account information and allows any updates to flow seamlessly back to the billing software.

According to Adams, ERMU is now in the process of evaluating NISC modules for engineering and operations with functions such as live mapping of assets and outages and tools to increase the efficiency and accuracy of communications between the front office and the field and with customers.

ERMU plans to begin using NISC’s Mobile Workforce modules this fall. These modules enable work crews in the field to generate service orders and staking sheets remotely. Additionally, utility staff will be able to access data, whether it’s from accounting, customer care, billing, operations, or system administration, from a mobile phone or tablet. “We are eager to streamline our processes, remove paper from the equation, and have the ability to track the process electronically within the software,” Adams says.

The implementation of NISC’s outage management solution will allow ERMU to quickly pinpoint customers affected by an outage and notify them about the status of the outage and estimated restoration times.

Overall, Adams say the ability to integrate accounting, billing, and engineering will be a “huge benefit for everyone.” By enabling any authorized worker to see account histories, service requests, and notes, the software makes it easier for field personnel to provide more informed and better customer service, he says.

“When we made the decision to go with NISC in 2013, the vision was clear: to have a software company that can work with all aspects of the company,” Adams says. Integrated functions for improved communication within the organization and with customers was a key goal.

The NISC software gives ERMU the ability to grow with the system and take advantage of different modules on its own timeline. Upgrading can be a continuous process, an ongoing evolution of options and technology solutions.

“For us, the ROI comes from customer engagement. NISC positions us well for our future needs rather than just providing a short-term financial gain,” says Adams.

For more information about NISC enterprise software solutions, visit NISC’s website.