Using CIS software has enabled Chicago's Department of Water to provide better service and save money.
Photo: Indus International Inc. Using CIS software has enabled Chicago's Department of Water to provide better service and save money.

Keeping water flowing to thousands of residents is a demanding job for the Chicago Department of Water Management. With 45 miles of new water mains installed each year, keeping up with how much water flows—and determining whether customers are properly paying for their water and sewer service—can be even more challenging.

But Indus Customer Suite customer information systems (CIS) software—from Indus International Inc., Atlanta—now automates the department's service delivery, billing, and collections, and helps the city improve service and collect millions of dollars in past due bills.

The department provides potable water to more than 5 million customers in the city and 125 suburbs, purifying and pumping nearly 1 billion gallons of water daily. All of the city's drinking water comes from Lake Michigan. Providing water and sewer service to Chicago and surrounding communities for more than 150 years, the department constantly strives to improve the water infrastructure and increase customer service.

The Department of Water Management installed the new CIS in September 2000 to replace an in-house billing system. Prior to that, field technicians and other employees tracked water usage and billing by hand, and staff couldn't keep up with the city's massive growth and increasing water needs. Collections fell behind, applications for new meters took longer to process, and it became increasingly difficult to track customer account history and interface with other departments.

In its first year of implementation, Indus Customer Suite helped the department collect $20 million more in past-due receivables, achieve a 100% return on investment, and realize a $3.8 million reduction in aged accounts receivable. The department also achieved an additional net reduction of more than $8.5 million in the second year. Payments are applied within 60 seconds of receipt, versus the previous requirement of 24 hours. The software also has improved the department's ability to verify usage and bill payment with round-the-clock customer support and scheduling.

In addition, the system provides the department the tools needed to electronically gather and track customer information; provide information on customer account status and needs; arrange and fulfill service appointments; and keep track of meter inventory, parts, and equipment. Supervisors and field crews can prioritize service order schedules based on everything from collections profiles to potential water theft.

The department can coordinate requests for building permits, water meter installations, and other city services, reconcile those requests with a customer's account status, and vice versa. For example, the Revenue Department team can identify water holds on business licenses and enforce them until the water department verifies that past due water bills are paid.

The software also enables the department to interface with the city's Web site, giving customers online access to their accounts. With that interface, customers can calculate their water bills, view rates and usage history, and learn to read their own meters. They also can view drinking water chemical analysis reports and report a street water leak. This interface with the rest of the city's online services helps the department stay consistent with other city departments and provide better service. The department's team has been empowered to be more responsive to city customers—the main mission in the Department of Water.

Viria B. Holland is deputy commissioner of the city of Chicago's Department of Water Management.