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Bristol Water’s wholesale division was voted the best performer by retailers in the inaugural R-Mex ratings and was consistently high in the preceding league tables. The company built the division to be customer-centric and is now applying that formula to the wider business. Chief operating officer Richard Price talks to Utility Week about what’s been achieved and what’s next in the strategy.

Price joined Bristol three years ago as operations director and is now chief operating officer at the water-only company. He joined as the organisation was undergoing a transformation kickstarted by chief executive Mel Karam to bring the divisions together to share best practice, knowledge and skills.

Under Karam the customer service operations were built up and the next phase has been to bring the customer facing teams together with control, planning and scheduling operations.

“We have customer teams and work management working side-by-side,” Price explains. “This enables us to handle domestic or business queries quickly to get the right person with the right skills, equipment, tools and experience out at the right time to do the job.”

The model was successfully used in Bristol’s wholesale division before being applied throughout the organisation. Price explains each area still has their core responsibilities but bringing them together means there are opportunities to learn and share best practice, skills and even resources at busy times.

“Bringing our customer-facing team together with control, planning and scheduling function enables us to tighten up the customer experience. As a small company we can do this perhaps more readily than a bigger organisation,” Price says.

In the past, teams would have been working in more discrete functions – customer service or operations, and then split further into network operations and water production activities. These functions are now combined as frontline services, which Price says simplified the structure.

The wholesale team, new supply team and the frontline operational call centre have been united and work is now underway to bring together planning and scheduling together to create the customer hub.

He said joining the relevant people, skills and tools together in a timely way to complete each job is the “dream ticket” for field performance and minimises time wasted on jobs. The success of the system in the wholesale division was embraced and replicated in wider operations to see similar performance gains in customer and developer services.

With these people and process-focused changes completed, the next leg of the journey will examine the systems that underpin operations, mainly the mobile workforce management systems to allocate and organise work. Price says there are opportunities to learn from other sectors such as tracking improvements made by delivery companies.

“Parcel delivery companies can tell you the delivery driver is Bob, what time he’s arriving, that you’re his next stop and even that he’s coming down your road now. There’s no reason why we can’t embrace that technology in providing customer excellence. There are opportunities for wholesale and domestic customers to streamline the experience.”

The overhaul has come with some churn, Price explains some departments were streamlined while other teams grew. Where efficiencies have been made the company redeployed people where possible. Water meter installation, ground maintenance and security all came in-house during the process.

The driving force behind the changes started with Karam when a blueprint was established which all the operational principles are aligned behind. Price says these are the guiding principles for the business alongside the values of the company. “The blueprint is what we’re doing, the values are the how we’re doing it.

“Our core foundation value of being proud supportive and respectful of one another in business is complemented by our values of ambition, professionalism and accountability – all underpinned by trustworthiness. Those values are important to how we operate as a business internally and in the wider community as well.”

The transformation continued through lockdown, which meant greater efforts to communicate with all parts of the business.

“I passionately believe it’s key to put customers at the heart of the business,” Price says. “The opportunity of creating the customer hub, complemented by a system change, will not only set the business up for the next 10-15 years but also enhance our position in various league tables and unlock greater performance and productivity from a field perspective.”