Having spearheaded Affinity Water’s recent digital engagement partnership with AI firm Webio as a contracted transformation lead, Rob Upton-Moir – Skewb’s head of developer services – shares his thoughts on the importance of working cross-company, cross-utility, and cross-sector to drive innovation, and the ‘Amazon effect’.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

I joined Anglian Water fresh out of university as an in-day scheduler – I scheduled, planned and undertook reactive work for a team of treatment technicians.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry?

Like many who join the water industry, I hadn’t any experience or even knowledge of what the water industry was about. Embarrassingly, I was ignorant to the work that goes in to putting water into my tap and the effort involved in taking it away and beginning the cycle again.

What is the most significant way that today’s utilities sector differs from the one you first joined?

The biggest change I’ve seen is how conscious we’re becoming of the world in which we operate and the legacy of what we leave behind.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

With any challenge, I think it is important to gather perspective. All challenges can be broken down into manageable chunks. The key lesson I’ve learnt in my career is to use the expertise around you and play to each other’s strengths. The worst thing you can do is become an island in times of trouble.

What do you think Utility Week Innovate readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I spent a year in an American high security prison…as an intern teaching general education.

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the utilities sector?

Time, space, and networking. We all have busy jobs and lives so it’s about companies making time and space for innovation to grow. Companies need to set out the guiderails for innovation and let it thrive. It’s important we don’t over construct the process and stifle creativity. We must look to work cross-company, cross-utility, and cross-sector to drive true innovation. We can learn a lot from other companies around us whether that be within water, within utilities, and wider.

Which other industry do you feel that utilities can learn most from when creating the conditions for innovation?

The tech space for sure! Google is a prime example of where innovation is at the heart of their culture. They enable their workforce to have a voice in shaping their work environment. Things such as Google Cafés, FixIts and all-hands team meetings create a space where people naturally come together and deliver some awesome ideas!

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you’ve worked on during your time in utilities – what made it special?

The D-MeX improvement programme at Affinity Water is testament to true partnership and has progressed from 16th in the D-MeX league table to 8th during the year to date. This has been achieved through innovative use of technology – such as Webio, ProcedureFlow, and Simply Thank You – streamlining processes, and implementing checks and balances. Affinity has truly gone on a journey and we’re excited for the future and what we can achieve together for developer customers.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in the utilities sector – any trends, tech or specific innovations?

For me, it’s our race to net zero that excites me. We know we have to do things differently for the sake of our planet and future generations. The exciting thing for me is how that changes our interaction with our customers. How can we be innovative in our approach to new developments? How can we drive water efficiency? How can we adapt our materials and approach to meet the NetZero Targets? All of these questions require us to draw on strengths both from within the industry but also in the wider domain.

What do you think will be the defining factor in the UK hitting its net zero targets?

Investment. We have to make the right thing to do as cost-effective as the most-carbon heavy thing to do. Money is tight for many people and many of the current net zero initiatives cause the end-product to be more expensive, or require significant capital to make the change. People may want to do the net zero way but simply cannot afford to.

What is the change you’d most like to see within the utilities industry?

I’m a strong believer that cross-utility collaboration is key to all of our successes. How we improve our collaborative when it comes to developer services is key. If we can make it a seamless, effortless journey for a customer to get a water, gas, and electric connection then we will all benefit. The customer satisfaction will improve, efficiencies to be made from application through to completion, and wider environmental benefits.

How do you feel utilities companies can collaborate more – or more effectively?

From a narrow development services view, we have to look how we facilitate development as a collective instead of silos. We need to look how we facilitate one conversation about multi-utility connections using the least intrusive method possible. This will help us be more efficient, reduce costs to our customers, and reduce wider impacts to the community.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the utilities sector at present?

A key challenge is customer expectation – we now live in a world of the “Amazon effect”. Customers expect instant results, instant responses, and no quibble complaint resolution. As utilities, we must move at speed to meet these responses. We’ve largely met channel availability, but we’ve got some way to go to make it real-time. In the developer services world, we’ve got to look at how we can make connections quicker and less hassle for our customers. It means working closer than ever with our stakeholders such as Highways Agencies and other utilities.

What is Affinity’s partnership with Webio?

In late January, Utility Week Innovate reported that Affinity Water had begun a new digital engagement process by introducing conversational SMS “chatbot” messaging in a bid to boost customer engagement rates.

The partnership with Webio, a provider of conversational AI to the utility, financial service and retail industries, will see its platform enable Affinity teams to proactively engage with customers, provide status updates on projects and book appointments for site visits.

“Webio allows us to open another channel of communication that is different to other messaging platforms we’ve seen in the past,” Graham Turk, director of production and supply at Affinity Water said.

“The two-way interaction functionality and simple back-end user interface enables an authentic experience for our customers, which ultimately allows us to respond to them more efficiently, as well as build a more effective understanding of their sentiment.”

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