The successful utility companies of the future will be those which have replaced legacy systems with more nimble, flexible applications, writes Martin Dunlea
Utilities face new opportunities and challenges brought on by the march of a digital revolution, and by how this has changed end user expectations of their services providers.
Utilities today are being encouraged to up their game to remain competitive. This means finding new ways to be more customer-centric, empower customers with proactive and personalized care on all channels and the ability to control their usage experience.
Over the next 12 months, the biggest challenges and opportunities for power and utility companies will be to build a comprehensive customer experience, drive operational efficiency and excellence and embrace big data opportunities.
The utilities industry is waking up to the realisation that they have to evolve their customer experience, and find new ways to engage with customers and meet their changing requirements. This involves bringing the utilities customer service in line with the experiences delivered by retail, finance and telco service providers.
Consumer expectations are shifting dramatically, and when utilities are unable to meet these, customer satisfaction and loyalty can decline. The focus must therefore be to achieve greater transparency, roll out new services and offerings and deliver a modern customer experience that leverages multiple technologies.
Those focussed on improving customer experience are often most concerned with making changes to front-end, customer-facing applications and services – improving dashboards and self-service capabilities or opening up new customer service channels via social media and chatbots. But this is only part of the story. Changes must be made across the organisation.
Utilities face a number of barriers to achieving this. Disjointed customer service capabilities across various channels make it a challenge to control costs and ensure customer satisfaction. In addition, a lack of business agility, fragmented processes and complex infrastructure make it difficult to provide a seamless customer experience.
By improving service delivery and embracing new technologies that can interpret consumption data and empower customers to manage their service and control their usage, utilities companies can reshape their relationship with customers. The old dynamic whereby consumers only interacted with utilities with a complaint or service issue will give way to a two-way relationship that is more positive and proactive.
Of course, while technology plays a major part in the transformation of the customer experience, utilities do not necessarily need to overhaul their entire technology infrastructure. With the right flexible customer experience approach, utilities can seamlessly enhance their core Customer Information System (CIS).
CIS remains at the heart of each utility’s customer relationship strategies, so as customer needs change utility companies need to develop additional capabilities and components in an efficient and modular way. Their focus must therefore be to invest in changing business processes with the aim of achieving this and making better use of the valuable data they collect.
Operational excellence refers, in part, to utility operations such as grid management, work management, asset performance management, supply chain and even supporting smart meter or IoT deployments. It is important for three reasons.
Firstly, many utilities tend to invest heavily in this area, which means it also presents opportunities to quickly identify cost-saving opportunities. Secondly, utilities that adapt their technology to be mobile and cloud-ready will improve field services and boost efficiency. Finally, and most significantly, the traditional business model of distribution network management is quickly changing into something dramatically different.
Consumers are turning to cheaper distributed energy generated from rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and diesel generators. A smart approach to data analytics is essential to making the most of DERs, and guaranteeing users a reliable energy supply. This is where modern network management systems add value. They provide utilities with dynamic, real-time data on flow conditions across the network to help them better manage the integration of distributed energy sources.
If utility companies embrace these operational changes, they will gain greater visibility into, and control over, the distributed energy resources that are increasingly being used in today’s energy market today. From there, they can drive benefits for both prosumers and themselves.
It’s no secret that big data, and more specifically the smart use of big data, is providing companies across all industries with the ability to get closer to their customers, better understand their own businesses and inform more strategic decisions. While utilities are rich in data across all of these areas, it’s time for energy providers to look beyond their historical reporting needs and do more with the information at their disposal.
Senior executives will continue to need reports on what has already happened, but today’s technologies and algorithms also provide real-time insights into the status of everything from customer relationships to network performance.
The uptake of IoT, smart meters and sensor technology also means that the volume and type of data available on individual customers’ energy usage has grown exponentially in recent years, and when analysed alongside network data it becomes a powerful predictor of future network performance.
This future view allows utilities to better prepare for spikes in demand, incentivise customers to make small changes to their habits that will help better manage network capacity or develop new products and services to meet changing customer needs.
Emerging technologies such as predictive machine learning, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence are further moving the needle and helping utilities to transition from a reactive to a very proactive and prescriptive operating model. In short, it’s all about treating data as an asset, breaking down data silos, and establishing a process that means the organisation can derive insights from the information it collects and act accordingly.
There is no doubt that cloud solutions will play an increasingly important role in helping utilities to tackle their challenges. A significant number of utilities already use or plan to implement the cloud, or use applications and computing resources delivered as-a-service via a network connection instead of traditional in-house resources.
To make the most of the cloud, the utilities industry needs to disrupt itself and move away from its risk averse approach to technology investment. Many of the technologies that utilities are taking to the cloud today revolve around smart grid efforts and next-generation technologies, such as meter data management, big data analytics, and distribution automation and network management. The successful utility companies of the future will be those which have replaced legacy systems with more nimble, flexible applications that address evolving business processes in key areas, optimise existing business models and ensure that cloud technologies fit well within the broader organisation.