Utility companies should collaborate to innovate

Digital transformation isn’t just about having a grasp on new technologies. It’s about knowing what your customer wants, and collaborating with peers to find solutions. Story by Shaun Weston.

Utility companies should collaborate to innovate. Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.

Fresh from the Future of Utilities Summit 2019, and armed with the rejuvenating energy of palpable enthusiasm, let’s talk about the potential of collaboration. After all, what a waste of energy it would be should those energetic attendees not return to their offices and put into practise what was learned across those two valuable days.

While there was much to discuss around various artificial intelligence technologies such as chatbots and sensor data, the most fruitful and enjoyable conversations were about customers. Utility companies are not immune to the zeitgeist of customer-centricity, and this event offered a solid platform for getting the conversations that need to happen under way. There’s nothing so effective a tonic as hearing your peers talk enthusiastically (and with data to back up their claims) about putting the customer at the forefront of your business. (Especially if you haven’t bothered doing it yourself yet.)

It’s perfectly true that “the utilities industry is ripe for disruption”, but it’s not just about installing data analytics centres and server farms to bring you up to speed. Digital and business transformation is as much about understanding why you do what you do in the first place, and creating better journeys for your customers to enjoy. Game-changing technologies will enable us all to create better journeys for our customers, but it’s important to remember the outside-in approach to ensure you get it right first time.

The outside-in approach

Simply put, a business that pushes products and services on customers is practising an inside-out approach – we make, you consume. A business that responds to the demands of customer trends is practising an outside-in approach – you want, we create.

In the utilities industry, you could argue for transforming immediately in the following areas: vulnerable customer debt guidance, bill management, budgeting, switching supplier, and having an omni-channel approach to handling accounts across various devices. Yes, being attuned to the world of digital innovation is an advantage, but it’s more important to see things from the customer’s perspective before spending your limited profit margin on a giant digital transformation project.

What small, incremental changes could you make to improve a customer’s journey over the next six months, for example? What do you already have at your disposal to be able to make a difference to how your organisation operates, without opening the floodgates to a hundred pitches from eager agencies? And, perhaps more importantly at this stage of your digital development, what can you learn from your peers and further afield?

Collaboration for fundamental learning

I read a roundup blog by Seb Fox, senior producer of Future of Utilities 2019. I noted a couple of provocative lines:

“The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty for a traditionally slow-moving industry.”

“34% of senior utilities executives surveyed think that the industry will be unable to execute the level of digital transformation necessary over the next five years.”

I don’t work in the utilities sector, but I sense the lethargy as a customer. I am the one who doesn’t understand the bill when it arrives. I’m the one who can’t get through to your service team when I need to (and the one who’s passed around different departments when I do). I’m the one who can’t get my smart meters installed. I’m the one who can’t access the same tools on my phone as I can through my browser. Perhaps I’m more frustrated than most customers, simply because I’m digitally savvy and you’re not. You understand energy supply far more than I do, but I understand digital processes that make customer journeys better, and I work with a company that specialises in creating customer journeys that work.

I believe Seb Fox is right in that first line: the utilities sector is traditionally slow-moving. However, you’re not alone. So many global industries work at a snail’s pace, some because they’re large and unwieldy, making change difficult; some because they’re satisfied with their lot and don’t feel compelled to change. Yet, some companies work fast and enthusiastically towards change, because they recognise that progress and business transformation is how we improve things for the customer. These are the companies to listen to and learn from.

The sharing of ideas across industries will further innovation and solve problems. This sharing was in evidence at the Future of Utilities 2019 event, and was great to see! Collaboration is the solution to addressing common issues, building mutual trust, and nurturing an environment of progress. Digital technologies offer the tools to help us forge new paths to success, but that’s all they are: tools. The willing to collaborate for the benefit of improved customer journeys has to be there from the start, so that digital development can happen organically. I will leave the final word to Heidi Mottram, CEO of Northumbrian Water:

“If we are to be leaders in innovation, we must be unafraid of collaboration, sharing knowledge and being challenged. This cannot happen in isolation – by bringing together individuals across the utility sector, this conference prompts and provokes these opportunities.”


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