Didier Vila, chief data and AI officer, Utility Warehouse Retail excellence, Comment, Utility Warehouse, Internet of Things, Innovate energy, Customer service, Field operations

Utility Warehouse’s chief digital officer explains how collaborating with Cambridge Spark has helped the FTSE 250 firm equip staff with tailor-made tools to traverse new data and digital demands stemming from both Covid-19 and the energy crisis, and the need to ethically harness AI.

The last two years have seen a paradigm shift in our everyday life, from ever-changing rules and restrictions to how businesses have reacted to the transforming world around them. Meanwhile, the utility market has gone through more upheaval than most.

The pandemic has led to unprecedented changes across industries, with businesses having to adapt to a new way of working while also dealing with customers undergoing financial and societal pressures like never before. In particular, the ongoing energy crisis and the cost of living have added a new layer of complexity to how utility companies operate.

The rising wholesale cost of energy has led to an energy market undergoing a huge contraction, with dozens of suppliers going out of business.

Navigating a diverse data ecosystem

These factors have forced utility companies to accelerate and complete their digital transformation journeys to adapt to changing consumer behaviours. Utility Warehouse (UW) is at the forefront of this change.

UW has a series of unique technological challenges because of our multiservice nature, with each presenting its own technological needs and nuances. But at the root of it is our simple offering. Our customers are able to take a bundle of services, such as energy, telecommunications, insurance, and a cashback card, all linked to one account and one bill.

To counteract these challenges, UW has teamed up with education technology company Cambridge Spark to offer employees tailored data apprenticeships to meet the changing and specific demands of data analysts, data engineers, data scientists, machine learning engineers and software developers.

These new skills will be critical to navigating the richness and diversity of our data ecosystem while also implementing robust and ethical AI solutions. This program will accelerate the delivery of our UW ‘Scaling AI’ vision for the benefit of our customers, partners and stakeholders.

In at the deep end

This partnership programme is being embraced by its first cohort, including Max Adcock, a data analyst in the customer team who has been at UW for 10 years.

“I first started working with data in my role as a customer experience coordinator,” Max says. “I used data to help our different teams make data-led decisions and to explore issues that impacted our customers or customer service staff. I started off by running comment code reports in our billing system and working magic in excel spreadsheets, learning structured query language (SQL) – a standard language for storing, manipulating and retrieving data in databases – along the way.

“We now have an amazing tool called ‘Looker’ which allows people to interrogate data at the click of a button and it’s become an essential part of our day-to-day.”

Max was offered the Cambridge Spark opportunity and jumped at the chance to begin the apprenticeship.

“We’re only a few months through the course and we’ve been thrown in at the deep end,” he reflects. “We’ve learnt the basics of programming in Python and a number of techniques that aren’t possible in Excel or SQL.

“The best thing about the apprenticeship is how relevant the content is; we have to be able to demonstrate that we’re applying the techniques that we learn. So far I’ve been able to analyse which types of communications prompt customer calls, helping us investigate how we can provide a smoother switching experience for all of our new customers.

“I’ve also been able to write my first bit of software that automates a number of activities and reports saving hours of work each month. I’m looking forward to everything that is to come, we’re only two months in and there’s over a year to go.”

The benefits of this partnership can already be felt across the business. We’ve got a real mix of staff like Max, who’s been here for a decade, as well as new graduates taking part. Every level is welcome and our partnership with Cambridge Spark allows us to offer new skills and career development to any member of our team.

Ambitions to grow

Of course, this improves the skill level of our team and they feel personally invested in. But it also has a wider business impact. As a business, we recognise the importance of developing our own talent pool as a tool to attract and retain new and existing colleagues.

Our business is unlike any other in our industry and because of this, retaining our staff is vital. And more engaged and equipped staff means business efficiencies and faster delivery for our customers, our partners, and our stakeholders.

We’re a forward thinking business in every way. From the way we design and distribute our products and services to how we operate internally. Our unique value proposition, distribution and operating model encourage us to continue to think differently. This apprenticeship enables us to improve our performance every day.

As we come out of the ongoing pandemic and energy crisis, our ambitions to grow are stronger than ever. We have invested heavily in tech transformation in recent years and despite being a FTSE 250, we’re an agile and enterprising business who are able to respond quickly to any situation.

These apprenticeships with Cambridge Spark will form a huge part of this going forward. Based on the current success of our apprentices, we will welcome and start the second cohort of apprentices in the coming months.

See this content brought to life at Utility Week Live, 17-18 May 2022 NEC Birmingham

Delivering best in class customer services and Optimising field operations are among the frontline challenges at the heart of Utility Week Live 2022’s live content programme.

View the challenges and be alerted for tickets to the industry’s most eagerly awaited reunion at utilityweeklive.co.uk