Mark O’Loughlin, partner, head of digital transformation UK&I, Atos Consulting Energy retail, Innovation, Technology, Company insight

Utilities should view digital transformation as an opportunity to enhance customer service, boost operational efficiency and improve workforce management.

It is no secret that digital transformation has led to a fundamental shift in the way consumers interact with their utility providers. The need to make sense of the complex web of political and regulatory changes, coupled with an increasingly competitive market enabled by emerging technology, leaves consumers with a huge number of potential suppliers and tariffs, and utility businesses under constant pressure to improve retention while simultaneously reducing costs.

These factors, when combined with the General Data Protection Regulation requirements, have increased the need for utility providers to digitally transform to drive down operating costs, and at the same time provide an enhanced customer experience while complying with data protection law. Such a transformation enables utilities companies to compete in the current market, as well as to future-proof the organisation’s presence in the fast-changing landscape.

However, while digital transformation might sound like a significant challenge, it also gives providers the ability to improve three crucial areas of the business: customer experience, operational efficiency and workforce management.

Customer experience

Today’s consumer may have more choice than ever, but many are time poor, meaning suppliers need to demonstrate understanding of their lifestyles and priorities – whether financial, technological or environmental. The most effective way for digital transformation to have a measurable and positive impact on customer experience is to gather a detailed understanding of how consumers want to be treated and then designing a process centred on these needs.

For this, data is crucial. But it is equally imperative to interpret insights within the data and then turn this into actionable intelligence. A good first step involves linking front-end and back-end systems to help employees gain a holistic view of a customer’s journey and enable first-time resolutions and greater productivity.

With nearly seven million smart meters already installed in the UK, as well as the number of Internet of Things-enabled devices in the home growing by more than 16 per cent year on year, the potential application of this data is immense. Customers can expect greater billing transparency and providers can start utilising data to better personalise goods and services for every customer.

Operational efficiency

Disparate and disconnected systems, often the result of mergers and acquisitions or ongoing legacy systems, are not suitable for delivering optimal services for today’s nimble consumer; a consumer that demands fast and efficient service and has the ability to transition swiftly to another provider if it is felt those standards are not being met. As a result, utilities providers are becoming increasingly customer-centric, delivering services that do more and create new and improved user experiences.

A crucial benefit for utility companies when adopting a digital-first mentality doesn’t just involve streamlining processes, but increasing both the volume and the value of data generated by various connected assets across the business. As more connections are facilitated, more processes can be automated.

This automation and data exchange, which was originally used in manufacturing but has rapidly permeated to other sectors including utilities, is known as Industry 4.0. It can radically increase efficiency through the proactive detection of failures, discover patterns within Internet of Things datasets to boost operating efficiencies, and extend asset life and availability in compliance with shifting regulatory requirements.

For most utility businesses, current revenues are generated by electricity, gas or water consumption. However, the next generation of utility providers will increasingly depend on differentiation and highlighting how they distinguish themselves from the rest of the market – be that through new data-driven services, new business models or ever more effective customer engagement, all supported by advances in artificial intelligence.

Workforce management and collaboration

Digital transformation of the workforce is a necessity to protect legacy knowledge and expertise that will disappear with an ageing, retiring or long-serving workforce. However, with the prediction that one in five jobs in the UK is at risk from automation, some workers fear the impact of digital transformation.

Businesses therefore need to engage with workers right from the start to take them on the digital journey with them. Automation isn’t about replacement, but more about empowerment and facilitating better connections and gathering insight. And by retraining workers to do the jobs of the future, they will not only become more effective and motivated, but also brand ambassadors and champions of change.

Within the sector, and more broadly, workers are increasingly mobile, moving between site, office and home environments. This modern mobile workforce is flexible and adaptable, but it will be effective only if access to the corporate working tools it needs for seamless working can be delivered any time, at any place and on any device. This will drive collaboration and also empowerment.

Furthermore, if organisations are serious about engaging and retaining younger workers, the tools of the workplace need to better reflect those they use socially.
The utilities sector may be undergoing a seismic shift, but rather than viewing this as an operational headache, it should be viewed as an aspiration journey. By embracing the huge range of opportunities to make themselves more efficient, more connected, and more responsive, utility companies will be expertly placed to deliver operational excellence, simultaneously delighting consumers and reducing costs on the path to true operational sustainability.

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