Driven by the ubiquitous adoption of the smart phone, the term “connected” has become increasingly pervasive in our culture. It describes not only how we view ourselves in our home, work and social relationships, but our expectations for others, businesses and even the very “Ëœthings’ that touch our world.
Utilities are no exception to this shifting paradigm, and perhaps as the very entity powering this new connected world, the expectations are higher. Increasingly, customers demand transparency and control over both the consumption and sources of energy powering their lives. To deliver the insights and experiences customers are demanding, and to sustain and evolve their business models, utility leaders must embrace this ethos of “connected”.
Innovative utilities have begun to embrace this change. In recent leadership discussions there is a clear understanding that, at its core, embracing a Connected Utility framework requires establishing a bi-directional flow of data between what have historically been siloed entities: Operations and Customer. However, unclear is whether utilities understand that attaining this state is something greater than the implementation of a single technology connecting those organizations. While a single source of truth is foundational, there are many other elements to consider in how the utility can achieve such a state and the implications associated with realizing it.
Having a clear and well-articulated vision of how to engage the customer is foundational for a utility seeking to become truly connected. This vision must address how deeply within the value chain customers should have visibility and what services and capabilities will be activated by this visibility.
For example, a utility may envision outage and restoration information that flows seamlessly from the field and is provided in real-time to customers improving satisfaction and ultimately allowing them to manage alternatives. In doing so, they must consider what level of transparency and associated process change is needed from the on-site work crews all the way to the customer meter, including work processes, analytics and visualizations that can enable those changes.
Fortunately, “connected” is a two-way street, and utilities should also weigh the business benefits they could potentially gain from process modernization, such as improved reporting and restoration from crowd-sourced “Ëœfield agents’ reporting outages. Defining and managing to a clear-headed vision will enable the utility to develop a comprehensive roadmap to understand the investments required to achieve the goal.
Examining a future state where such transparency is not only expected but promised, it is also easy to see the importance utilities must place on data accuracy. As an illustration, when a customer receives a delay of service notification from Federal Express or UPS it is specific: The carrier informs the customer the reason for the delay, current location of the package and, most importantly, when they can expect to receive it—and this information is sent proactively before the customer realizes the service has been disrupted. This level of transactional insight has been achieved by an investment in technologies supporting data availability and communication; by creating air-tight processes around each touch-point ensuring their accuracy; and by substantive investments in analytical models connecting the data to service outcomes.
The same must hold true for utilities. Leaders must look at the organization holistically, beyond what has traditionally been considered customer-facing, to identify gaps and create an understanding of how these roles ultimately impacts the customer’s perception of service quality.
Failing to realize that the bar has been set high by companies fully engaged in understanding customer experience, many utilities have sought to meet increased customer expectations by jumping into the “app” space, but with very mixed results. Frequently, the urge to “do something” has come at the expense of a complete customer experience solution.
While it’s important for utilities to recognize that the journey to a Connected Utility cannot be done at a leisurely pace, they should also understand that customers are unlikely to accept an experience that is less than perfect. Contrasting with the package delivery illustration above, an outage alert system that bombards a customer’s inbox or phone with erroneous alerts regarding system restoration (e.g., being triggered only by customer outage complaints and not recognizing that power has been restored) are likely to be met with significant customer dissatisfaction and negatively impact future interactions with the utility. In worst-case scenarios, a single case of inaccurate or false information can erode the trust that the utility traditionally enjoyed with that customer.
As a result, continuing to embrace the long-held mindset of multi-year pilots is untenable. The training wheels must come off more quickly: customers expect utilities to get it right the first time. Utilities must challenge themselves to view pilots as part of an agile and well-designed full implementation plan. In doing so utilities should examine the level of effort and investment required to get it right the first time.
Analytics and visualization are investments that have a significant positive impact, improving the success utilities have on achieving the envisioned outcomes. Investments in these areas often have the additional benefit of helping to measure the initiative’s quantitative business impacts and are essential to aligning plans with the continuing investment decision-making process.
Ultimately, the path to a Connected Utility will be unique to each utility. For some, changing reporting structures to remove perceived organizational silos will be the start of a holistic change for the entire organization. For others, the journey may begin with a simple use case that extends some of the momentum built from investments in customer-focused areas such as billing. Regardless of the initial approach, the destination must be the same if utilities expect to unlock their greatest potential asset—the Connected Customer. Utilities pursuing this with a clear vision, a focus on the details and a true commitment to get it right, position themselves for the greatest success.
About the author: Hugo van Nispen, CEO of BRIDGE Energy Group, is a recognized leader in energy transformation, consulting services, and systems integration. He brings over 30 years of consulting leadership focused on delivering IT, modernization and process optimization solutions to utilities.