It’s a Sunday evening.
You’re gearing yourself up to leave the safe confines of the sofa to put on a laundry load and make your way through the stack of washing up left over from the roast dinner you’re digesting.
You might reward yourself with a relaxing soak in the bath afterwards.
Until, that is, you go to fill the sink and discover your taps are running at a trickle.
You can call, tweet, chat to an online assistant (if there’s anyone there), but chances are you’ll just be joining a chorus of other frustrated customers.
The problem here isn’t just low pressure in the pipe network, or toothless customer service. It’s the fact that there’s nothing joining these two operations: the link between those on the frontline of customer interaction and the engineers equipped to solve the problems being reported isn’t strong enough.
Traditional organisational structures within the utilities sector have maintained different business operations in siloes. Regulation has maintained, and in some cases exacerbated, this siloed approach.
Utilities companies need to start taking an end-to-end approach, one that reduces costs and improves customer service across the entire operation.
This begins with breaking down siloes and allowing information to flow back and forth: using live and direct customer feedback to influence what’s happening operationally.
So how do we make this happen?
Extracting the true value of your data
First of all, businesses need to consider the engineering value of the feedback their customers give them.
Use customers’ eyes and ears as sources of information, and use that information to better understand how the gas, water, or electricity networks are functioning.
Looking at new technologies that will enable this, I see that RCS (or Rich Communication Services) and chat-bot technology can be used to communicate more effectively, efficiently, and securely with customers, producing richer, more useful feedback data.
This, combined with the wealth of data on network health that IoT sensors are able to provide, can help provide a much clearer picture of how systems are working – or not working, as the case may be.
Other technologies, including edge computing, AI and machine learning, can be deployed to help identify patterns in these troves of data.
Meanwhile, RPA (Robotic Process Automation) filter and automate the communications process: feeding back progress information to customers, as well as informing engineers of where errors are occurring (or could be in the near future).
Sounds straightforward enough?
An ecosystem approach
Needless to say, there are organisational, structural, and cultural aspects to making this work – it’s not a purely technological solution.
And this approach will only work in a joined-up system that is designed from end-to-end to allow for seamless transfer of information and action.
CIOs need to adopt a mindset that is change-oriented: exploring ways to use technology to achieve simultaneous cost reduction and service improvement. No mean feat, granted, but not an impossibility either.
Equally, this isn’t something that any one leader, employee, or organisation will drive themselves – let alone complete.
Success will depend on an ecosystem approach, one that draws on expertise from across sectors and disciplines.
Just as utilities companies should be aiming to join up their siloed departments – customer support with engineering operations, and so on – ecosystems will need to function as open, collaborative units.
This is not just about technological transformation, but needs to include both engineering and business transformation.
Graeme Wright will speak on the panel ‘Delivering for customers whilst reducing cost-to-serve: the operational challenge’ at 14:35 at the Future of Utilities Summit on 27 March.