Digitisation a “fundamental requirement” for utilities - Thames Water CEO

Steve Robertson says digitisation has transformed customer relationships

Digitisation is now a “fundamental requirement” - rather than a desire - for the utilities sector, according to one of its most senior figures.

Speaking at Utility Week’s Congress event in Birmingham yesterday (11 October) Thames Water chief executive Steve Robertson explained that digitisation is transforming the customer relationship.

He said: “For the telecoms market, horizontal integration has completely transformed profit pools and it has become the definition of the industry.

“We can see how that wave is going to potentially change the way we, as utilities, operate and relate to our customers.”

The convergence of different value models in the utilities space is something the sector is going to have to learn “to embrace”, Robertson added.

“When we look at the challenges of growth and climate change, the opportunities of digitisation and the way it allows us to predict, automate and optimise, becomes less and less of a nice thing to have and more and more of a fundamental requirement about how we operate our business in a way that meets our customers’ needs and in a transparent fashion,” he said.

Digitisation can also help water companies deliver important messages to a greater number of customers than they have been able to do in the past.

Citing Thames Water’s recent 250-metre 'fatberg' discovery in east London, Robertson explained how it became a media sensation that enabled the company to highlight the water sector’s campaign to ensure no unwanted products get flushed away.

He said: “It was a work of genius to invent the term fatberg. The stats are staggering – over a billion people on our planet have found out about it and it has had 400 million Twitter impressions. And getting a Radio One DJ to go down a sewer, how fantastic is that? Radio Five Live’s video was viewed 1.2 million times in one weekend.

“Pee, poo and paper should be the only things that go down the loo. That message being delivered to one billion people wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.”

Robertson said it demonstrates people are “interested” but explained it was “becoming old fashioned” to talk about customers as consumers view themselves more as “participants” now.

“We relate to customers in a very different way than we have done historically.”

He concluded: “We should embrace and aspire to be the global exemplars of how this digital world can be harnessed for the benefit of society.”

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