ARCHIVE FOR THE ‘british-gas’ CATEGORY
I write this article in the second week of January. An odd time when faded Christmas trees lay abandoned in gardens, and flashes of tinsel peek through wheelie-bins. Festive memories seem a long time ago and the summer seems even further away as we return to work. We snooze the 6am alarm, reluctant to step into the cold morning.
Symbolising this grim time of year is the broken boiler. Plummeting temperatures mean faults are common and energy companies come under pressure to respond and to deliver first-time fixes. Customers, particularly on a cold January morning, want radiators hot and their showers hotter.
In Britain, central heating was introduced in the 70s. Then it was seen as something of a luxury. Today it is seen as a basic requirement, we miss it sorely when it’s not around so when the boiler flame goes out, we demand a quick response from our supplier. An expectation affirmed by the Uber and Amazon delivery service-times we operate in.
So has the utility sector adapted to the modern customer demand and if not,what does it need to do to keep up? Are they instead content to just keep their regulators at bay? And what about technology adoption? Do firms still feel uncomfortable dipping their toes in big-data lakes?
Historically, utilities have felt ring-fenced from competition. The majority of companies have a monopoly over the areas they supply. Investing in complicated and costly digital strategies has never been high on the agenda. Stephen J Callahan IBM’s VP of Global Strategy and Solutions for Energy and Utilities explained why outfits remain sceptical in an article for RDMag in 2015: “The analytics opportunity for utilities is clear,” he wrote, “but there continues to be a lack of real push and value delivery. Companies have been concerned about the high costs and complexity of data. “Technology shifts, regulatory changes and the emergence of empowered consumers all demand a new approach to customer engagement. With analytics, energy companies can make the shift to engage with customers in highly personalised ways that can increase customer satisfaction, lower the cost of service and promote new products and services,” he urged.
For UK energy companies, customers switching tariffs and regulation from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) are the main drivers influencing its customer strategy. Transparent costs and price comparison sites have
made swapping easier for consumers and in 2016, 4.8 million frustrated households did just that. Their main reason? Poor customer service.
That said, despite the numbers, and a strong PR campaign around the ease of which it can be done, the rate of switching is perhaps not where OFGEM want it to be. “I think switching is happening but probably at a lower level than the regulators would be aiming for,” explains Laurence Cramp from Leadent, a managing consulting and technology business specialising in field service. “Mainly because people are using the supplier in their area and they’ll stay with that supplier.
“It also comes from the fact that tariffs are all in and around the same range so consumers tend to be paying about the same price for their energy. The customer service may be better or worse at some or others but that’s not necessarily linked with what billing platform they’ve just integrated. I think people probably look at the power sector and think it’s much of a muchness.”
In the UK, British Gas, SSE, EDF Energy, npower, E.ON UK and Scottish Power form the “Big Six”, the suppliers who provide the majority of energy to the UK. Smaller and more streamlined energy companies, with a strong focus on service exist, yet consumers seem content to stick with the top names.
Of those, British Gas is the UK’s largest energy supplier and can lay claim as the world’s first public utility company. Set-up in 1812 as The Gas Light and Coke Company, the firm provided customers with coal-based energy. The sector, and technology, has moved on considerably – not least with the advent of electricity – and British Gas has done its best to keep-up, adopting technology to enhance its customer service processes. It recently rolled-out its ‘On My Way’, real-time engineer tracking facility, enabling customers to see the precise location of the engineer, producing an accurate arrival time for time-starved customers.
"In 2016, 4.8 households switched energy supplier. Their main reason? Poor customer service..."
Tim Andrew is the CEO of Localz, the company behind British Gas’ location tracking technology. He says 2019 will see utility watchdogs push companies hard when it comes to customer service. “Regulators continue to increase their focus on customer experience, using both penalties and incentives to drive same-year measurable improvements,” he predicts.
“This year will show that the companies who outperform the industry, continuously focusing on providing transparency and control to consumers, rather than running a project to meet the minimum regulatory requirements.”
Consumers are hamstrung to the area they reside: Southern Water, Thames Water, Yorkshire Water for example, with customers unable to switch tariffs. With consumers locked-in to contracts, how are suppliers kept on their toes to ensure they deliver on customer service?
Here, the Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) keeps economic tabs on companies. Set-up in 1989 following the privatisation of England’s 10 water authorities, it carries out a review every five years with this year (2019) being the next period of scrutiny.
This cycle will see companies adopting a Customer Measure of Experience (C-MeX) incentive approach, intended to focus firms on delivering a high-standard of customer service. C-MeX supersedes Service Incentive Mechanism (SIM), a customer satisfaction survey carried out four times a year by the regulator, and will link financial incentives to the performance level of the best performing companies.
Cramp believes the new approach will spur-on companies, through the use of technology, to be more comprehensive in their customer focus. “C-MeX is there to encourage firms to be more holistic and rounded in what they do for their customers,” he says. “This is a good time for water firms because they’re now all gearing up for the next five years and undoubtedly customer service is a really big part of that with a lot of focus on investment in technology to help
However, he suggests the water companies are some way behind their energy counterparts who, driven by their own regulator OFGEM, have already integrated such initiatives “I see the water companies playing catch-up with where the power utilities were five years ago. I think the energy regulator has been on that case a little bit ahead of the water companies than OFWAT,” he says.
The utilities sector is a broad market, however like field service, which straddles numerous verticals, there exists an opportunity to share best practice across its own verticals: water, electricity and gas. Is it possible for the energy sector to extend its five years of technology-focused customer learning to its water counterparts?
“In our daily lives we take a great experience from one industry, and get frustrated when that isn’t available in another,” says Localz’ Tim Andrew, who is adamant it can. “As a business, trying to meet, let alone exceed customer expectations by
taking input from just an internal or single industry perspective is futile. Cross-industry collaboration and product development is critical.”
As well as working together, the sector needs to invest sensibly in technology, particularly around customer service. There are murmurings that this is starting to happen, particularly in the water industry but how long this will take is even less clear. Studies suggest that worldwide firms are setting aside funds to do just that. In 2015, GTM research anticipated utility company spend on data analytics growing from the $700 million spent in 2012 to $3.8 billion by 2020, a huge leap but it need not be a leap into the unknown and at all times, the customer should be at the heart of any decision.
“Becoming a customer-centric, information driven organisation is no longer simply an option for most utility companies. It’s a business imperative,” Callahan said in his 2015 rallying call to the utilities sector. Four years’ on, will his words have had an impact?
Watch this space.
To help customers monitor and manage their energy usage, British Gas is rolling out smart meters as standard to homes and businesses across Britain by 2020, as part of a Government mandate. A team of 1200 field engineers (known as Smart Energy...
To help customers monitor and manage their energy usage, British Gas is rolling out smart meters as standard to homes and businesses across Britain by 2020, as part of a Government mandate. A team of 1200 field engineers (known as Smart Energy Experts) are responsible for this task. To work efficiently, these Smart Energy Experts need appropriate IT devices to support them, but the existing tablet estate was aging, and at the limit of its designed capability....
British Gas partnered with Computacenter to help upgrade its tablet estate to Dell devices running Windows 8. Computacenter was responsible for sourcing, testing, pre-configuring and asset tagging the devices before delivering them as required to British Gas sites. The project was successfully completed on time to aggressive timescales.
Smart Energy Experts use the new tablets to support every stage of the smart meter installation process. This includes receiving their jobs and updates through the day, workflow through different types of jobs, as well as the commissioning activities for smart gas and electricity meters. Using the new devices has simplified their day-to-day tasks, and improved employee satisfaction, productivity and customer service. This will help British Gas achieve its goal of ensuring the smart meter installation is a seamless experience for its customers.
Customer profile: Powering homes and business across the UK
British Gas is the UK's leading energy supplier, and serves around 12 million homes in Britain – nearly half the country's homes – as well as providing energy to one million UK businesses. British Gas provides "value for money, dedicated customer service, innovative energy solutions and the highest quality Home Services expertise in the country."
Business challenge: Helping customers be smarter about energy usage
By 2020 smart meters will be rolled out as standard across the country as part of a Government initiative, replacing current gas and electricity meters. British Gas adopted a strategy to introduce smart meters early in order to bring the benefits to customers as soon as possible, and currently leads the industry with more than one million meters already installed in customers’ homes and businesses.
Each home receives a smart gas meter, a smart electricity meter and a smart energy monitor. Smart meters communicate how much energy is being used to a smart energy monitor so customers can see their energy use and its costs in pounds and pence in near real-time. The smart meters also record energy use at up to half-hourly intervals and send these readings back to the energy supplier, once a day, putting an end to estimated bills.
Alan Fairhurst, Technical Consulting Manager with British Gas Strategic Systems, explains: “British Gas has already installed over a million smart meters into homes and businesses, and the roll-out is gathering pace as we look towards the Government deadline of 2020.”
To ensure British Gas can achieve this goal and safeguard the quality of customer services, the Smart Energy Experts need to be equipped with the right tools. “The IT devices they use have a big impact on their productivity. We need them to be able to focus on their customers and the job in hand, without worrying about IT issues and downtime,” says Alan.
The team was using tablet devices that were originally selected for their toughness, but the devices lacked the features and ease of use needed to maximise productivity.
Computacenter solution: New Windows 8 tablets for 1200 Smart Energy Experts
British Gas partnered with Computacenter to upgrade the tablet estate. “We have worked with Computacenter for a number of years,” explains Alan. “Mass device change is not our core business, so when it comes to projects such as this, we need a partner with expertise and experience, such as Computacenter.”
Following an internal exercise to evaluate the devices available on the market, British Gas turned to Computacenter to help procure and build the selected Dell Latitude 10 tablets, which run the Windows 8 operating system.
Computacenter helped British Gas negotiate pricing with Dell, and from June 2013 took responsibility for building and delivering the new devices over a four-month period. “Computacenter managed the logistics of the project, which included monitoring and tracking shipments to ensure they arrived on assigned dates so we could meet our tight deployment deadlines,” comments Alan.
Following delivery at Computacenter’s Hatfield Configuration Centre, each device was BIOS-tested, pre-configured and asset tagged. They were then packed with accessories, including a ruggedised Griffin survivor case, and retained at Computacenter’s buy and store facilities until British Gas required delivery.
Results: Improved engineer satisfaction and customer experience
By partnering with Computacenter, British Gas was able to mitigate the risks associated with deploying such a large number of devices within a short timeframe. “It was quite an aggressive project where we had to get the new tablets out to our Smart Energy Experts quickly and get it right first time,” confirms Alan. “With Computacenter’s expertise and experience, we were able to successfully complete the project to deadline without having to invest in additional resources and space.”
As a result of working with Computacenter, British Gas has been able to:
Reduce project risks: Computacenter’s commitment to British Gas’s tight deadlines, vendor relationships and best practices helped ensure the project was a success.
Simplify the installation of smart meters: The British Gas Smart Energy Experts use the new tablets every day when installing smart meters. They receive full details of each property and task, and track the progress of every job, via the tablets. The devices are also used to take photos of the meters in location for future records.
Improve engineer productivity: The enterprise-grade Windows 8 tablets bridge the gap between the corporate and consumer world, combining the reliability of a corporate device with the ease-of-use of a consumer interface. This not only simplified training, but also maximises productivity on a daily basis.
Increase employee satisfaction: Although corporately owned, the devices are personally enabled so Smart Energy Experts have an incentive to look after the tablets. They also enable them to take advantage of a growing range of helpful apps.
Enhance customer service: As Smart Energy Experts can access all the details they need about each customer and site quickly and easily, they can provide a better informed and more efficient service. They are also able to demonstrate a number of British Gas services and products whilst at the customer premises.
“With support from Computacenter, our Smart Energy Experts have the tools they need for the job. They are happier, more motivated and able to provide better customer service,” concludes Alan. “This will help us achieve our goal of installing smart meters as standard to homes and businesses across the country by 2020.”