Here he tells us why a customer centric approach is key if utility companies are to improve agility maximise the benefits of digital…
Where do you see the biggest opportunities for the utilities sector in terms of using digital?
One of the biggest opportunities is around customer centricity. Digital enables companies to put the customer at the forefront, something the retail sector has been doing for years.
We’re also seeing a real drive in the convenience that digital enables. Different customers want to use different channels, and being able to drive communications through apps or mobile sites really empowers the customer. Most people expect that now.
Putting that power in the hands of the consumer is a great benefit—there’s real value in convenience. While paying your water bill or recording your meter isn’t the most exciting interaction, being able to do it in a way that’s frictionless, at any time of the day, is the new standard of customer experience that people are demanding.
Everyone wants to be able to do these things without unnecessary hassle.
Is it fair to say that other sectors such as retail have raised the bar, and utility companies must follow?
There are many younger, more agile companies springing up, and they're able to really disrupt what's happening. Look at the financial space - digital bank, Revolut, is growing by 6000 to 8000 customers per day. In three years, it’s now at 1.5 million customers having launched in July 2015.
A consumer's expectation is the last great experience they had online. When there are really groundbreaking apps and digital experiences out there, that sets the precedent for their next interaction. It doesn’t matter which industry they are dealing with, and that includes utilities.
Does greater customer centricity rely on achieving the agility boasted by many smaller start-ups?
There is a question around agility, and the siloing of different departments and stakeholders within these organisations, but it’s as much about culture as it is about the size of the organisation.
Some of the biggest companies in the world have grown up in digital. They can still make those changes and adapt to changing customer needs.
It's the job of utilities companies to drive innovation from within. It's more about processes and how they can be proactive in terms of the particular service they are providing to their customers.
In the water industry, PR19 outlines four key areas where companies need to raise their game. One is customer service. Where do you see digital impacting on this?
Utility companies need to play catch up when it comes to meeting customer expectations, and personalisation can be a great enabler of that.
For example, it would augment a customer’s experience if a company could infer the intent of their visit to their website, and quickly make the right information available to that specific person.
They can do this by looking at the clickstream behaviour of users; establish how people are navigating their website, and then determine what's important to them.
It’s important to remember, however, that the reason a customer is visiting a website might differ, visit upon visit. They might want to pay a bill one week, and report a problem the next. So while companies should consider someone’s behaviour, it’s essential they understand the intent of the user in the moment.
Personalisation tools make it possible to do this in real-time, as they allow a website to automatically adjust and adapt.
How do you see digital impacting on resilience, another key area highlighted by PR19?
The cloud can play an important role here, as it allows businesses to scale very quickly.
In the event of an emergency, such as an outage or mains burst, providers are going to get lots of customers using their services to find out more information. The cloud means they can scale up seamlessly to meet the needs of that increased traffic. It also offers additional layers of security.
Cloud technology has the ability to process big data too. Utility companies have all these shoestrings of data coming into the business, and the cloud can process and make sense of this一ultimately facilitating faster decision making, in real-time.
The Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2017 shows that utility companies are less likely to invest in cloud services than other industries. Is that consistent with your experience?
No, since we’ve seen a big shift toward the cloud right across our client base, including utilities.
Cloud technology adds resilience and scalability. It allows companies to focus their efforts on customer service, rather than maintenance of systems and servers. It means they can concentrate on what they do best, which is managing people's utility supplies.
You mentioned data silos as one of the challenges facing utility companies. How can utility providers address this?
Many organisations have data across multiple parts of the business. First and foremost, companies need to look at how to consolidate their tools and systems - what's driving their mobile app, what’s driving their microsites etc.
They also need to look at the way they are tracking and storing customer data. If the information is spread across multiple different systems for example, they may inadvertently brush over or miss important information on their customers. Reducing the number of moving parts will benefit the business and the customer.
Consolidation allows companies to make better decisions, because the version of the data they’re using is going to be the same. The second part concerns where the data will be held, and digitising as much of this information as they can.
How important is it to segment customers when marketing and communicating to them?
I think there's a lot of opportunity here.
Segmenting based on reliable data, such as location, is really valuable. If a company knows a customer is based in a certain town or city, they can utilise segmentation to serve them relevant information based on that knowledge. If you have access to customer’s more recent behaviour though, such as what they were doing that morning, then you should try to address their primary intent.
Companies have to avoid the risk of putting people into buckets when segmenting. What a customer did on the company’s website three months ago might be different from their needs today. If a company is making decisions based on historical information rather than live behaviour, they could be getting it wrong.
How do you see GDPR influencing the data strategy for utilities companies?
One of the great things about GDPR is that it creates a level playing field. Everyone comes under the same rules.
Businesses need to think of themselves as data shepherds, not data wolves. They're there to look after people's data and use it appropriately. It's up to organisations to really reflect on how they use customer data and make sure it’s in the best interests of the customer.
The other side of it is how digital enables compliance.
Businesses need to ensure their team understands GDPR and the regulations, and can demonstrate that understanding. Organisations with tens of thousands of people can disseminate that information throughout the business and make sure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being deployed in a number of sectors. How important do you think this technology will be within utilities?
There’s a lot of existing work in that space already. AI can process huge sets of data and make accurate decisions based on this. It allows us to make sense of things we couldn't before, such as determining customer intent.
AI can help companies to see how people are navigating a website and identify the key drop off points. It also improves our understanding of where people are engaged and helps them to meet their goals, without needing an army of people to crunch through the data.
I think businesses in the utilities sector really want to embrace AI. They understand the value of it. However it usually relies on the agility of the organisation and how they can harness their capabilities. It’s about attracting partners to help them understand where the value is, and to help them build on that.
How do you envisage the customer experience evolving within utilities?
One factor is deregulation, which will create more consumer choice.
Utility companies need to ensure that their experience and offering is clearly communicated across the numerous digital channels.
They need to recognise that different customers like different ways of interacting, and not just offer a one-size-fits-all solution. Whatever option a consumer chooses, their needs should be met…
If they want to be able to phone and speak directly to someone, they shouldn’t be put on hold for 20 minutes or have 20 different options that they might not want. Or they might prefer to use the chatroom, or email, or some of the things we don't yet know will be available in the future.
Utility companies need to make sure they have an infrastructure in place that can be adaptive to these technological advances. Agility will be absolutely key to success.