Let there be low-cost light. That’s the mission of electricity retailer PacificLight, which since April 2018, the date when Singapore’s consumer electricity market began its liberalisation, has been providing affordable electricity to residential households across the country.
The city-state’s Energy Market Authority (EMA) started deregulating the energy market in 2001, when it opened the retail electricity market to competition to allow business consumers choose their electric provider.
PacificLight is one of those retailers, with a natural gas power plant that began operation in 2014 on Jurong Island. Non-commercial customers, however, could only purchase electricity from Singapore Power (SP) Group, a government-owned electricity and gas distribution company.
Everything changed on 1 April 2018, when EMA rolled out a pilot test of the Open Electricity Market (OEM) that extended the liberalisation of the electricity market to residential customers.
Today, households in Singapore can choose to stay with SP or switch to any of the 12 EMA-authorised retailers participating in the OEM – including PacificLight.
PacificLight was ready for the transition. Preparing for the shift from business-to-business to consumer commerce sparked a transformation within the organisation, including the development of consumer-friendly web and mobile portals, a new telephony system, and extensive integration with existing back-end systems. The company also needed to deploy new retail pricing and billing systems.
A collaborative culture, careful planning, and a clutch of knowledgeable software vendors helped make the expansion to the residential market a success. On top of that, the improvement of the retailer’s IT systems has led to the development of new business models that previously were not possible.
According to a paper published in Energy Policy, supply competition and the recent liberalisation policies have led to a combinatorial estimated decrease in wholesale electricity prices by up to 9.11%, accounting for the influence of oil prices and other volatility components.
Deploying the right tech for a new market
Stephen Lo, Head of ICT at PacificLight for the last six years, was in charge of securing a smooth transition from business to consumer retail operations.
Lo worked on three major, concurrent IT projects: website development, a call centre system, and a retail customer management system. Each of them aimed at enhancing the overall quality and efficiency of the company’s customer experience, with a focus on effective service management. The initial scoping for the first IT project commenced in 2016 and by 2018 they were all fully implemented.
The months preceding the OEM trial were intense, says Lo. A range of new software solutions were required, including a CRM system, a revamped website, an online sign-up portal, a cloud-based telephony system with call centre and call-flow configurations, as well as integration with PacificLight’s existing accounting and risk management systems.
Key challenges included meeting tight timelines, ensuring that residential customers understood how the liberalised electricity market works, and managing the influx of competitors. The new website, sign-up portals, risk management pricing, billing and settlement systems had to be in place before the beginning of the first phase of the OEM.
“With the overall market framework in place, PacificLight then defined the requirements for each project,” says Lo. “For each individual IT asset, a detailed breakdown of the requirements was created with time management, resource requirements, user and system integration testing specifications in mind – with the end goal of achieving an optimal customer service experience for all customer interaction.”
Each IT development project included a mix of representatives from both PacificLight and the respective vendors. Where possible, Lo looked for vendors who had proven systems and were familiar with deregulated retail markets.
“For the development of our website and online portal, we worked with a company which assisted with our marketing strategy, while acting as our one-stop, integrated website designer,” says Lo. “For our call centre system, we adopted an interactive voice response (IVRS) call-flow to effectively manage both inbound and outbound calls, as well as computer telephony integration (CTI) for our CRM and call centre systems.”
These platforms together provided customers with menu options for simple queries along with the opportunity to get personal assistance for more extensive issues and concerns.
The retail customer management system was deployed by an experienced international software vendor familiar with retail markets in the region. Lo explains that the vendor’s exhaustive understanding of Singapore’s energy industry speeded up the process and facilitated a smooth transition.
Both the call centre system and retail customer management system were based on existing commercial software which were then customised for PacificLight’s specific requirements.
The new website was a bespoke development which put an emphasis on making a mobile-friendly, intuitive, visually enticing and informative site.
Collaboration to the rescue
The detailed framework and associated business processes were developed by the EMA in conjunction with industry players, including PacificLight, and used to define the detailed scope of each IT project.
PacificLight also identified the criteria for each project – such as time management, resource requirements, user and system integration testing specifications – to help ensure all systems were optimal.
“We established a Steering Committee within the company to manage each project,” says Lo. “The Steering Committee helped shaped the project’s direction through direct involvement by senior management and ensure timely delivery of various components and outcomes. User acceptance testing (UAT) and integration testing were done with a parallel team of IT and user representatives.”
Although the process of developing the entire system proved challenging due to the aggressive delivery timeline, Lo says that effective internal communication among the various internal stakeholders contributed to the success of the undertaking – including PacificLight’s retail and customer service teams, who ensured that the project effectively met customer needs and expected service standards.
According to the Head of IT, the organisation prides itself in cultivating a collaborative working culture. In addition to weekly project status meetings with detailed action items, stakeholders also participated in informal group chats to resolve urgent issues, thereby reducing project delays.
Collaborative processes extended to external vendors with team members overseas and in different time zones, from suppliers and partner companies to internal departments. PacificLight used a variety of open and transparent communication tools to keep every involved party abreast and aligned with the objectives and progress across all related projects. The result, Lo says, was that all projects were delivered on time and met all the required deliverables.
Preparing for battle in a new market
In this extremely competitive market, where 12 retailers – as well as SP Group – are fighting to attract the 1.4 million households and business accounts eligible under the OEM, what is PacificLight doing to stay ahead of the curve?
The company’s chief differentiation, explains Lo, is to provide “end-to-end, seamless customer service to customers.”
In a climate of increasing cybersecurity threats, the Lo says that the retailer is also adopting the best-in-class practices for data security when developing its systems. As part of the contract sign-up process, PacificLight’s customers need to provide certain personal and sensitive data, including NRIC or FIN number, date of birth and email address.
“We take responsibility for this data seriously and we have developed robust IT policies to govern the storage and access of any personal data collected,” says Lo.
PacificLight has certified professionals carrying out regular vulnerability assessments and penetration tests on essential system components to ensure the best response in case of a cyberattack. Lo assures that the measures in places are effective and security rating reports show that PacificLight has an advanced rating within the energy sector.
Moving forward, PacificLight is looking at the adoption of cloud-based solutions across a range of their services and systems to improve their ability to scale customer operations at a faster rate.
Judging by the giant transformation accomplished in such a short period of time, that transition seems well within the electricity retailer’s reach.