Public Utilities Fortnightly’s Steve Mitnick sits down with John Baksa, President North America Hansen Technologies.
PUF’s Steve Mitnick: Your company is very heavily invested in research and development. Tell me what you are trying to develop.
John Baksa: We believe it’s important to continuously invest in our products and communicate our roadmaps to clients, so they have transparency about where we’re going as a company. It gives us a chance to talk with our clients about their businesses and listen to their feedback.
We have a history of long-term relationships with clients and investing in products. We don’t sunset products. If a client comes on board with us, their product is going to be here for as long as they want to use it. In North America, we’re very excited. We’ve bought several companies in the last few years, starting with Banner. Banner is a product that’s been around for twenty-plus years. I was a former user of Banner in one of my retail jobs. It’s a proven platform, very stable and scalable. It’s built on top of an Oracle relational database. It’s very powerful. However, the platform changed owners several times before we acquired it, causing product investment to drop off. When we bought the Banner product, we knew it had good structure underneath it. We had a great client base. It just needed some modernization. We embarked on what’s now been about a two-year research and development investment plan. We’re about to release BannerCX, version 5.1 on the thirty-first of March, and we’re very excited about it. It’s our biggest product release of the year.
PUF: What’s the big news about this release?
John Baksa: I’ll give you the top few items.
Number one, it has a completely brand-new user interface. It’s a browser-agnostic, dynamic user interface, so right away it’s functionally richer and can run on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices. Being a Java-based application, it’s also very customizable. All the things that people take for granted today, we now have that same type of modern architecture on top of the BannerCX product, which already is very stable and scalable on the database side.
Second, we’ve incorporated new functionality around reporting and analytics. We’ve built into it an analytics and business intelligence engine. It always had good reporting, but now there is essentially a data analytics business intelligence product integrated with it, right out of the box.
The tech stack underneath it is still running on Oracle, but we’ve reduced the footprint of the tech stack so it’s faster to install, easier to maintain and less costly to license. We’re excited that we’ve improved the application program interfaces, or APIs.
BannerCX has an existing set of robust application program interfaces, but we’ve built them out further to help with things like mobile applications. Most of our clients run third-party software applications integrated with BannerCX — for example, work management and payment systems — so the APIs are critical to our clients. Just about all of our clients have worked on management systems for people in the field. Service truck staff that are out doing work collecting things on a tablet want to get it back into the billing systems, so that the customer service reps who are on the phone are aware there is a service call being scheduled. We’ve enhanced those types of APIs with our Hansen Integration Framework, our HIF. We’ve enriched the integration capabilities that were already there.
With the business intelligence capability, our clients can quickly drill down
into their billing and operations reporting to manage more effectively.
PUF: How does this help the companies, the utilities, and their customers?
John Baksa: Let’s start with the user interface. All of our customers have some form of call center or customer service capability. Some are fairly large. The user interface allows them to have more information available right on one screen when they’re on a phone call with a customer. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of time, it takes to service the customer and make that interaction smoother, improves customer service. That’s generally one of the top metrics that our users have. That’s a huge advantage just in terms of usability and customer service. Then with the business intelligence capability, our clients can quickly drill down into their billing and operations reporting to manage their business more effectively.
PUF: Customers are more demanding these days. They are also used to more interactivity. How do you deal with the utilities?
John Baksa: That’s where our focus was on enhancing the application program interfaces. We’ve built several new APIs to interface with websites and mobile phone based applications, for instance. Most of the utilities have these applications already to better serve their customers, or they’re contracting to develop them. There are specialized software companies that just build mobile apps for your phone. That’s not a business we’re in. But we partnered with a firm that’s in that business to help us build out and test our application program interfaces, because we know not everybody calls into the call center anymore. It’s somewhat demographic-based. I know my children who are in their mid-twenties probably never call, because they want to do everything online on their phone.
PUF: You’ve recently done something with one of the larger utilities, Xcel Energy. Tell me that story.
John Baksa: That’s on our NirvanasoftCX platform. This is another exciting product update. Nirvanasoft has been in the market since 1998. It was born out of deregulation in the U.S. New retailers needed a way to do their complex billing, not just simple billing. The deregulated energy market happened first in the commercial and industrial space, not the residential. The commercial and industrial customers tend to have very complex tariffs as a billing product, so you need a very complex billing engine. Nirvanasoft was built for that commercial and industrial complex billing market. It’s been recognized over the years as one of the best complex billing platforms in the market.
We have utility customers like Xcel Energy and others in the U.S. who are doing their complex billing inefficiently on very old legacy systems. Their complex billing issues tend to increase as more smart meters are deployed into their service territory. They needed a new, more functional system that could handle complex billing and interval data. We talked to them about the fact that we have this fit for purpose product. We said, “We think we could integrate it with your customer information system and extend the life of your CIS system.” It’s a big project to replace a customer information system, so if they could extend its life by adding on new functionality, then it was very attractive to them. That’s what we’ve done at Xcel Energy. We went live in November with the first phase. There are several phases of this. The first phase included a group of their complex electric tariffs. That’s been up and running now for three months, so we’re very happy to be able to deliver more benefits for them.
“Commercial and industrial customers tend to have very complex tariffs as a billing product, so you need a very complex billing engine.”
– John Baksa
PUF: How did you become president of Hansen North America?
John Baksa: I am new to this role, as of January 2018. However, I’ve been with the company for over six years. In that time, I’ve been in a few different roles working on Hansen’s software delivery side of the business. That’s the side that develops the software and implements projects with our clients. It delivers the solutions and products to our clients, and I’ve been involved with all of the North American product lines, the teams, and many of the clients. Prior to joining the company, I worked for twenty-plus years in deregulated energy and utilities. I was director of operations, responsible for running billing and operations teams and using the systems. I was also a Hansen customer. That’s how we knew each other, as well. All of that experience made me a good candidate when the North American president position became available. I’ve gone from being a client to working for Hansen, and now I’m responsible for bringing solutions to all the North American clients. It’s come full circle.
PUF: What’s your average day like?
John Baksa: I’m responsible for the overall client relationships in North America. That involves working with our account managers — Hansen has account managers for all of our clients. Also, for interactions with our clients and any kind of commercial relationships. Plus, staying up to date on any projects that we have going on or sending teams to work on site for the existing client.
I’m also responsible for the sales team. Marketing and sales is something that we’re really investing in. We’re raising our profile in 2018, including hiring some new people on our account management and our sales teams. We have some exciting product developments coming down the road that I want to make sure everybody’s aware of. This means we are investing more in our account management, to ensure our existing clients can benefit from the new functionality. I also want to get out there promoting our product to new clients and to bring some new clients on board. It takes a little longer to do that, but we’re devoting a lot to our sales and marketing strategy. We’re releasing a new brand in April that’s all about customer experience. We’re going to become known as HansenCX. CX, for customer experience, reflecting our focus every day. Bringing our specialized experience to our clients and helping them deliver better experiences to their customers. You’re going to see that at some of the trade shows coming up in the next few months. We want to start getting the word out that we have some exciting things going on in North America.
We’re also sharing our experiences as a global company. We have billing and customer information systems around the world in multiple vertical industries, and this expertise benefits our clients. Internally, we leverage our experience as well. Our teams collaborate and talk with each other regularly. If we see opportunities or issues in North America that a team in other geographic markets have gone through, we get on the phone, talk about it and ask, how did they solve this problem? There are similar problems around the world, just in different markets. Billing and customer information systems offices have a lot of commonalities around the globe. We have over one thousand employees servicing over six hundred customers in over eighty countries. We’re in these markets doing utility billing — electric, gas, water. We’re doing telecommunications billing, cable TV and paid TV billing. We have a lot of expertise that we can bring to these markets.
PUF: Apparently, there’s also a security side to this. Tell me about that.
John Baksa: A new position of Chief Security Officer has been created because information security is becoming much more of a front-page issue almost every week. One of our very experienced people, Scott Weir, was recently promoted into that role. While data protection has always been a high priority in our business, another layer of oversight – with Scott responsible for making sure we have the proper information security policies and protections in place – gives added peace of mind. An important part of our product roadmap investment is tech stack and infrastructure related. With increasing regularity, security fixes from Microsoft and Oracle and others are released, and we have to make sure our applications are compatible with them. That’s more critical than ever, because if you are not staying up with the vendors in the industry that you depend on, there’s a risk. They could introduce some kind of security fix and it could cause an incompatibility. We have to make sure that our applications stay up to date. There was a recent global security headline about a month ago called Meltdown and Spectre. Within forty-eight hours, Scott had a communication out to all of our clients regarding Meltdown and Spectre, updating them on the actions that Hansen had undertaken and will continue to take.
Some of the actions are not ours, because Intel and others had to do things with their processors, but being transparent with our clients is critical. Just making sure we’re on the front foot with information security, and getting those communications out there is important. We also have platforms that go through security and controls audits on a regular basis. Our Solutions platform, which is based here in the U.S., is a full cloud-based business process outsourcing, or BPO, service. We just completed our annual SOC-1 audit. SOC-1 is an industry controls standard for BPO service organizations. We go through this audit every year to make sure we stay compliant, and that our clients know their data is accurate and secure with us.
“We’re also sharing our experiences as a global company.
We have billing and customer information systems around the world in multiple vertical industries, and this expertise benefits our clients.”
PUF: What’s fun in your job?
John Baksa: People who know me and work with me say that I’m very much a people manager, a people person. I’ve always believed that having great people and a great culture is what accelerates a company and what enables a company to do the great things they do. I really enjoy the people that we have here at the company, the management team and the employees. I think we have a great team spirit and a great culture. We’re a very open collaborative group, that will quickly get on the phone with a client or with each other if we think there’s a problem or issue to discuss.
I also enjoy working with our clients. We have a diverse set of clients, from big investor owned utilities like Xcel Energy, municipal utility clients, and deregulated energy clients who work in a very competitive retail market. To me, if you enjoy what you do and the people you work with, it’s fun to come to work. And I really like the ongoing partnership approach we have with our clients. Our mission is to provide high quality solutions and help our clients grow their businesses. Our business changes. Our client’s business is changing. The demands on them are huge. We have to continually work together to help each other grow. That’s the day-to-day challenge, and that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting.
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly. Permission granted by the publisher.