A Utility Week roundtable, sponsored by Vodafone, sought to identify what the customer of the future might look like, and how technology might help or hinder future service provision.

Customers increasingly want more, they want it faster, and they want it to fit in with their individual needs and values. A Utility Week roundtable, sponsored by Vodafone, discussed how these trends will shape the profile of future customers, and what they will mean for the utilities industry.

First and foremost, delegates agreed there is no single profile for a customer of the future. While advances in technology and the service levels offered by other sectors are changing expectations across the board, customers are not a homogenous group. Different individuals, and indeed communities, will be driven by different needs, preferences and values, which will define the type of service they want.

For some utilities, it is the changing preferences of groups rather than individuals that may be more significant. For example, National Grid’s head of strategy (Global IS), Susan Robson, said the transmission operator is focused on understanding the needs of smart cities rather than smart homes, exploring the dynamics of energy communities and the development plans of city authorities.

Whether focused on individuals or communities, however, it is certain that utilities need to become more adept at differentiating their service offerings. As Vodafone’s IoT utilities lead, Wayne Flanagan, pointed out: “We have to create a different, tailored service for each demographic, which engages each of them in the way they prefer.”

One of the biggest challenges to doing this is how to know when to apply different service offerings or communications channels, because a customer’s preferences will change depending on the nature of their enquiry or their changing personal circumstances.

Customer care

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) may be able to help, said attendees. Increasingly capable AI systems are getting better at recognising language and sentiment in human communications, opening up two key opportunities for increased customer care efficiency.
First, advances in AI capability mean chatbots and other automated customer interactions can effectively respond to an increasing range of queries. Second, sensitivity to sentiment and customer needs can allow AI platforms to nominate human intervention where appropriate.

Together, these capabilities could allow utilities to differentiate with great precision and efficiency between customer needs that can be served with technology and those that require a human touch.

Mark McEwen, general manager for customer service at Scottish Water, found this potential exciting, saying it could enable the company to analyse scripts from customer contacts and identify the most common contact types. “That would allow us to understand how many times calls could be answered by AI. I think customers just want an answer – but it has to say exactly what they want to know: no less, and not too much more, and in a way the customer trusts. And that’s just the start. The real success will be when AI then raises a task or job if it’s required and keeps the customer informed along the journey to conclusion.”

Alongside such excitement, however, it was notable that there was also caution about the impact of widespread adoption of AI-driven customer service, especially on vulnerable customers. Some expressed concern that technology-centred strategies for future customer service could end up isolating certain customer types.

National Grid’s Robson suggested some of this concern was unfounded, although in certain instances the rise of AI and automation may pose challenges for utilities with a social responsibility to provide essential ¬services to all.

Future services

“The perception that technology cuts off older customers is not real,” she said. “In fact, increased use of voice searches (such as Amazon Echo and Google Home) and chatbots enable the non-tech-savvy to access services through intuitive interactions.

“Where we need to think a bit harder is about the customers who are in the hard-to-reach sections of society, where access to technology is restricted by lack of wealth. We must use technology and design cleverly to ensure we bring energy to all customers in our society in an efficient, reliable and sustainable way.”

Joanne Hollamby, head of customer strategy at Severn Trent, agreed, saying appropriate applications of technology could help hard-to-reach customers, or those in difficulty, rather than alienating them. She said she had been “truly moved” by the difference the introduction of digital communication had made for one transiently vulnerable customer group in particular.

“Those going through bereavement, upheaval in any way, who are having a hard time – they don’t want to speak to anyone, they don’t want to converse, they want to type in their requests and get an instant response. It’s much easier to type something than to say it in some scenarios,” she explained.

The varied discussion throughout this roundtable debate challenged the art of the possible in utility service provision – including whether or not utilities will always be best placed to deliver future services, and what the role of third parties might be in years to come. The tone overall was one of determined ambition, to continue bringing new capability to the table and to exceed customer expectations where possible. However, the underlying issue of utility legitimacy was a sobering anchor for even the most committed technology and innovation enthusiasts.

Views from the speakers:

Ben Carter, head of critical infrastructure services, Vodafone

“Together, regulation and technology are driving positive disruption in how utilities will be delivered in the next ten years. Shifting the focus to end customers versus the providers’ assets will continue to be a catalyst for change, especially as service expectations and digital technology continues to evolve.”

Susan Robson, head of strategy (Global IS), National Grid

“The ways in which customers want to converse with us and pay us are changing. This will drive us to really think about how we do business. Companies will need to be ready for disruption and have the courage to self-disrupt. That’s a bold approach but it’s something we need to start thinking about.”

Joanne Hollamby, head of customer strategy, Severn Trent

“We’ve certainly seen that some people want to become more self-sufficient. We need to think about how customers want to deal with us. To a degree they will dictate that, because they’ll tell us where they want to go. It used to be the other way around, but that dynamic has changed. Consumers know what they want and they aren’t afraid to say it, which is a good thing.”

Wayne Flanagan, IoT utilities lead, Vodafone

“Over time, today’s consumers will become suppliers and traders of utilities in their own right. How we’ll choose to manage that, while ensuring security of supply and delivering a quality service, will be interesting. Technology has to play a big part.”

Ben Newby, customer services and IT director, Bristol Water

“The political landscape is changing and we need to move with it … technology will be our saviour – it has a societal role and so do we. We need to make the two work together.”

Key points to take away

1. Strategies for serving future customers should centre on communities and social purpose, not simply individualised service offers.

2. Customers will remain diverse in their service preferences, but a strategy to provide simplicity and ease in interactions can transcend this diversity.

3. New entrants or existing technology giants may be better positioned than utilities to integrate services for maximum ease and efficiency of use.

4. AI and voice-controlled interfaces will define the future of customer inter¬actions.

5. Utilities must take bold action to restructure their businesses for a future that centres on customers, not assets.

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