Switching on loyalty – how innovation is helping utilities providers act more like retail brands

By Darren Bentham

Utility and energy companies are increasingly looking to other industries to drive a new set of benchmarks. Faced with pressure from regulators and customers who now expect a fully intuitive digital experience, they must focus on innovation to ensure profitability and stay competitive. But with so many priorities to juggle, how and where do you start?

Data

Utility companies generate – and are exposed to – a massive amount of data. That’s a given. The challenge  is making sense of it, identifying insights and acting on them quickly.

Data comes in two forms – structured and unstructured. Structured data, as its name suggests, is information that is stored in relational databases and is easy to search, like customer names and addresses. However, 80% of company data is unstructured, which is much harder to manage. Examples of unstructured data include social media feeds, undigitised records and images of assets. Successfully untangling data like this can open up a wealth of new insights.  

What isn’t talked about enough is the importance of looking beyond your own data. There is a wealth of useful information out there – owned by third parties, public organisations and complementary businesses. For example, the data from agencies, local authorities, landowners and the public has the potential to improve the way in which water companies respond to flooding. To compete effectively in today’s market, you should aim to develop an ecosystem spanning the full range of available data, both internal and external. This will give you a better picture of your business and the wider industry landscape.

Ultimately, business decisions are based on data; the more relevant the data, the more effective those decisions will be. Some may be put off by the disparate and unstructured nature of their data. In reality though, they should take tangible steps to build capabilities, processes and strong governance. Get this right and the data insights will follow.

Experience and interaction

In a world where consumer power and expectations have never been higher, utility companies are having to learn lessons from retailers when it comes to customer service, communication and brand loyalty. Indeed regulators are increasingly insisting that providers look to other industries to understand and embrace best practice.

Price is always likely to be a key driver, but a positive overall brand experience across all online and offline channels may be all it takes to keep a wavering customer on board. Giving customers more control can also be a big win. Intuitive self-services tools on apps and websites, for instance, are an attractive way of giving customers more power to control and reduce costs.

And just like more traditional retailers, utility companies need to be fully aware of their brand reputation. They need to be open and transparent about their profits and the impact they have on the environment, for example. Negative experiences can prove costly in a climate where customers are less forgiving than ever before.   

Providing seamless experiences and interactions should not stop with your customers; it should extend to your employees too. They want – and need – the latest tools and software to get their jobs done to the very best of their ability. This can mean developing new apps for field workers or creating more intuitive, visual databases for example.

There’s sometimes a tendency to think of terms like “experience” and “brand” as marketing waffle. In fact, though, they’re rooted in hard business numbers. Great experiences mean more loyalty, less need for outbound communications, reduced costs and more opportunities to increase revenues. And reducing staff churn through an improved employee experience will slash costs associated with recruitment and onboarding.

Connectedness

Much has been written about the Internet of Things, and the idea of “connectedness” is about leveraging the wider population who have a mobile device. Crowd-sourcing the reporting of leaks and other faults, for instance, can be an invaluable early warning tool if members of the public are made to feel part of a connected system. For example, a resident might spot a burst water main and immediately inform the utility company – which could otherwise have taken hours or even days to be detected. Relying on people power is often far more efficient and cost effective than installing a plethora of sensors.

Bringing it all together – the reality

One company that goes further than most in innovating and integrating across these three areas is Northumbrian Water. Specifically, we’ve been working with Northumbrian to create a brand new customer billing system that will both empower customers and help the company understand those customers better. It will also improve the user experience for employees, so they can be more productive and focus on serving customers. On this billing foundation, there will be a new website with much more self-service functionality.

In a parallel project we’re working with the company to create a new work and asset management system that will capture and unite information from different systems. This will enable more effective asset management and establish a platform for better decisions – based on increased connectedness between data and assets.

Northumbrian Water understands that delivering a modern brand experience that will keep customers coming back for more is far more than a cosmetic exercise. Such transformation has implications for everything from customer billing to asset management to enterprise resource planning. Utilities companies who get all this right can steal a march on the competition and look forward to loyal and engaged customers.

Nigel Watson, Northumbrian Water’s Group Director of Information Services, said: “There is more data in the world than ever before and never has it been more readily available. We hear so much about data in terms of ‘bad news’. However, the potential for using this abundance of data to do great, innovative things creates an unprecedented opportunity to deliver an unrivalled customer experience. Through collaborations with organisations such as IBM, the opportunities to do great things continue to grow and we are excited about doing even more such joint working in the future."

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