From Smart City to Smart Land

From Smart City to Smart Land

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A case study on how can smart city platforms improve living in rural areas

It is a common perception that technologies for smart cities are for the exclusive use in large urban agglomerations and that only citizens of large cities can benefit from them. In the following case study it is instead illustrated, with an example of concrete application already in use, how the digital platforms from smart cities can be applied and bring benefits even to small villages in rural areas. This concrete example will show how broadband, telepresence systems, and IOT can help large utilities to offer essential services to citizens of rural areas by overturning the paradigm that technological platforms applied to smart cities are for the exclusive use of metropolitan areas by extending the concept from Smart City to Smart Land.

Using Telepresence Solutions for In-Person Customer Service Without Needing to Be in Person

Andrea Catarinucci, Customer Service Manager at Umbra Acque S.p.A. Italy

Clean drinking water is a universal human right. It is not reserved for the richest among us but has to be available for all of us. This is exactly what we do every day at Umbra Acque S.p.A which is a multi-service company that manages the water service for 38 different municipalities across Italy. Located in the centre of the Umbria region, we guarantee the water for more than 500,000 people and have a massive 7,000 kilometres of water network under our care.

As a customer service manager of Umbra Acque, it is my job to (together with my team) serve those hundreds of thousands of people as best as we can. As one might imagine, covering such a wide geographic area with so many people has led to its fair share of problems along the way. We manage a provincial office in Perugia that provides both information and commercial services along with eight information desks that are spread around the territory. Those services are available both via call centre and dedicated mobile app.

We realized that to best serve our customers, we needed more locations closer to where people live. But we also wanted to take advantage of the technology. Therefore, we created satellite offices that operated as information centres for our customers where we also wanted to educate our customers about the new, technological ways to contact us. Unfortunately, that did not work out as planned.

Dissatisfied Customers and Employees

A major obstacle was that many of our customers insisted on meeting representatives in person. This was particularly true for our elderly customers. But when they would take time out of their day and visit these information centres, they could not get the answers they needed. They scheduled and came for the in-person meeting they wanted, but although representatives knew the answers, they could not solve their problems, since the point of these centres was just to provide information.

This resulted in unhappy customers that our employees had to deal with and on top of that they needed to travel to these satellite offices and these commutes took a long time. So we also had unhappy employees. It was evident that we need to change something. After some discussions we decided to look for a telepresence solution that could facilitate information sharing, provide easy access to data and prevent the need for so much travel. In addition to that, we knew that any solution we found had to be simple. Not just for our staff members, but also for the customers. With this core criteria in mind, we started searching. Luckily, we did not need to look far.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

An office of the Municipality of Perugia was already using Cisco Telepresence solutions to deliver other services (District 4.0). Even at a cursory glance, I knew this was the solution for us. I had looked extensively at other customer service organizations and found that no one was doing what we were attempting. I had nowhere to pull inspiration or learn from because there was no existing solution that we could use for for application or inspiration. We had no other choice but to develop what we needed by ourselves.

Quickly we got to work replacing our old information point with a help desk solution. The result of this is a fully automated service centre — truly the first of its kind. When our customers walk into this new location at Città di Castello, they can do absolutely everything they would be able to do if they would have walked to our headquarters. Only there is one big difference: there is no staff. But everything is set up in such a way that this does not matter to our customers.

If there is a form they need to sign, a machine will automatically print it for them—and a representative will even tell them what to do next through the telepresence system in real time. When they walk into a room, there is a telepresence setup system ready to go. The customer gets to speak to a representative who answers their questions and it almost feels like they are in the same room together

At first, this was a little strange and disruptive for customers—but then again, change usually is. But we always believed change is a good thing and soon our customers soon grew to love it. Not only could they get the exact same level of service they would if they had spent their day traveling to a far of location, but they could get it practically in their own backyard.

Because Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

Even though we are only talking about one pilot office that has been open for a short period of time, the results are already overwhelming. We have already increased the degree of satisfaction of our customers. The number of them who state they are “very satisfied” with our service has hit an all-time high of 92%.

This change has also enabled us to expand our operational hours, since we have dramatically cut down on employees commute times which eliminated costs and lowered the risks of staff travel. And when our satellite offices are not busy, our employees can attend to back-office work. This initiative has allowed us to serve our customers better, while increasing efficiency and reducing operational costs.

As a bonus, this project has also helped to justify an ongoing expansion of high-speed internet throughout the region. Officials in the region see this as a solution that can demonstrate to citizens what is possible with high-speed internet access. A lot of the problems we were facing were also challenges for the towns and municipalities in the area. Based on our example, more money is being invested in creating the network of the future—something that everyone will benefit from.

In the end, it is safe to say that the pilot program has been an overwhelming success. Originally, we were just looking for a modest solution to some problems related to growing pains. What came out of it is a model that will help guide our operations in the next decade or more.

The results have been so positive that we are already in the process of rolling out the solution to more offices in the not-too-distant future. There will be three more locations opening by the end of 2019, at Todi, at Gualdo Tadino, and at Castiglione del Lago. These three locations, together with that at Città di Castello, were chosen because they allow us to guarantee the service on all the macro-areas (North, East, South, and West) of the territory managed. The ultimate goal is to have this technology available to all of our offices.

But our primary goal was never technology for technology’s sake. Our vision for this project was to provide the best water service possible to all 500,000 people under our care. This journey has allowed us to use technology to make our customer service more human and efficient. Our employees are happier, our customers are happier, and we are only getting started.

Prepared and edited by Steffano Rossi K-DIGITALE