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Industry leaders discuss the need to bridge an information transparency divide between utilities and their contractors as they pursue improvements in customer outcomes.

Energy and water utilities in the UK have been on a long transition away from engineering-centric operating models towards a much clearer pursuit of great customer outcomes as a primary objective.

This shift has been driven by a broad macro-trend for rising expectations of service providers, as well as by regulatory measures, and over the years it has prompted some major cultural, process and digital transformation programmes at utilities.

However, all too often these transformation programmes have failed to embrace utilities’ contractor partners who each year deliver a huge proportion of the hands-on work involved in repairing, maintaining and extending energy and water infrastructure.

Across the utilities industry, it is still commonplace for utilities and their contractors to have minimal interoperability between systems for raising work orders and tracking customers contacts about this work – including complaints – for example. It’s also unremarkable for a contractor to arrive outside a property to complete potentially disruptive work, with scant information about the customers sitting behind the front doors of neighbouring properties – including any information about their potential vulnerabilities.

To drive a true transformation in customer outcomes and ensure great customer experiences are routinely supported in utilities field operations, it is time companies focussed on closing this information divide agreed speakers at a Utility Week webinar hosted earlier this month in association with Salesforce.

The event, which is available to listen back to on demand here, included senior speakers from United Utilities, Western Power Distribution and Cadent as well as Salesforce’s director of digital and customer transformation.

Across the board, these contributors agreed there is now a real moment of opportunity for utilities to build on the progress they have made in recent years in terms of injecting greater customer-outcomes awareness into field operations by tackling information asymmetry between their direct employees and their contractors.

Cadent’s head of customer experience Michael Lapper described the information gulf between the gas network’s core business and its contractors – especially those working on its mains replacement programme – as its “Achilles heel”, adding that in the coming year it is his number one priority to bring better alignment of information, purpose and incentives in order to push up customer service performance.

Meanwhile, follow webinar speaker Simon Chadwick, water, wastewater and digital services director at United Utilities said that achieving greater interoperability and transparency of information between its own workers and its contractor partners has been a major benefits of a recent award-winning digital transformation programme.

In what Chadwick described as a “brave” decision, United Utilities decided in 2019 that it would replace a “patchwork” of legacy systems for managing data and processes for disparate business functions like customer service, asset management, work management and asset reinstatement with a single cloud-based solution.

The scalable platform is now accessed by over 2,000 users across five companies and Chadwick claimed the flow of information and intelligence is seamless, supported by suite of apps which can be launched on any device – internal or external to United Utilities. Furthermore, the deployment, which won Utility Week’s 2020 Digital Transformation Award, has underpinned major improvements to customer experience.

Commenting on the theme of information transparency between utilities and their contractors, Salesforce’s digital transformation director – a long-time utilities industry veteran – observed that over his career he has seen “so many scenarios in which if the person in the field had just a little bit more information about the background of the customer or the history of the asset [in the moment they were conducting their work] the outcome for the customer and the business would be so much better.”

He acknowledged that achieving fluid data access between utilities and their contractors has historically been “a tough nut to crack” – in part due to the wide variation in length of contract frameworks, which means technology solutions for patching external partners into information securely need to be easily scalable. However he was also clear that “there is a bridge to be connected,” and praised the ambition of United Utilities approach to creating “single visibility”.

Other themes discussed during the webinar, which was titled “Equipping field workers for customer service” included:

  • The potential of predictive technologies to allow customer service performance forecasting and anticipatory approaches to service improvement
  • The importance of self-serve options to improve operational efficiency and reduce customer friction points – for example in relations to new connections
  • The influence of the consumer mobile tech revolution on worker expectations around the functionality and usability of field devices and the pressure this applies to device refresh timescales in industry

To listen back to the event in full, click here.