TV PANEL SUMMARY

Keeping the lights on through periods of high demand and volatility

 

From banking to retail, companies from all sectors have been challenged as never before by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s demand-side shock, social distancing measures or financial strain. Utility companies are not immune from these stressors: as essential services, it is vital they ensure reliable supplies for homebound customers while also safeguarding employees and keeping a lid on costs. Panellists on MarketforceLive’s recent webinar, Keeping the lights on through periods of high demand and volatility, agreed that technology will be key to delivering best-in-class operational agility so that a company can not only rise to meet the challenge of the immediate crisis but also prime itself for an uncertain future.  

“If you look at the results for the last two years, it’s hard to find any energy companies making any money. This crisis has compounded that.”

Chris Thewlis, npower

Nowhere is the challenge more acute than the retail end of the utilities sector. “The networks and generation have held up really well and clearly had good plans in place to make sure the lights stayed on,” said Chris Thewlis, Chief Operating Officer of energy giant npower. “Retail businesses were already under a lot of pressure and very few of them are profitable. If you look at the results for the last two years, it’s hard to find any energy companies making any money. This crisis has compounded that.”

“We had new customer propositions turned around within a week and customer service levels were not degraded at all.”

Jonathan Corbishley, Dual Energy

Despite existing pressures within the industry, companies responded well to the crisis. “We were very impressed with our own teams and how quickly they adapted to new ways of working,” said Jonathan Corbishley, Commercial Director of SME-focused Dual Energy. “We had new customer propositions turned around within a week and customer service levels were not degraded at all.”

“The industry’s response has been absolutely first class.”

Chris Thewlis, npower

Working from home: the new normal

In npower’s case, a decision was taken to shut the business for a day before mobilising to get 4,500 people working from home within ten days. “Before, it would have taken a year and a half, a big project team and cost £1 million,” he said.

“We now have 1,000 people working from home…We’d been talking about this for at least a year and suddenly, with necessity being the mother of invention, it all happened.”

Bill Bullen, Utilita

Bill Bullen, Chief Executive Officer at Utilita, said he was really proud of what has been achieved in such a short period of time. “We now have 1,000 people working from home,” he said. “We’d been talking about this for at least a year and suddenly, with necessity being the mother of invention, it all happened.”

Jonathan Corbishley of Dual Energy agreed, saying there’s now evidence that working from home is a “very productive and good operational structure”. “It’s worked a lot better than a lot of people anticipated,” he said. “There will certainly be a high proportion of this kind of working that will go forward, although it remains to be seen what level that is.”

Enabling technologies

This sudden shift to homeworking has converged with the emergence of the right enabling technologies, like cloud-based platforms or AI. Automation technology, delivering agility and speed have become part of the new normal, the panellists agreed.

“Most people were on some stage of the journey but the crisis has accelerated that,” said Bill Bullen of Utilita. “That won’t be reversed when this is over. I don’t remember a day recently when we have not had a new drop of the app, website or our own system. These improvements will not go away.”

“A lot of the changes being made in the energy industry right now are going to be permanent.”

Ian Blackburn, Blue Prism Cloud

Ian Blackburn, Customer Success Manager at Blue Prism Cloud, agreed that many of these changes will have sticking power. “A lot of the changes being made in the energy industry right now are going to be permanent,” he said, highlighting one client that found its offshore contact centres were being rapidly closed as the crisis developed. “They were going to be exposed, their customer service would suffer, and they couldn’t afford that,” he said. “It was great to see them pivot, rapidly reassess the situation and, using our Blue Prism Cloud platform, were able to generate automations of those processes, allowing them to onshore them back to the UK via automation.”

“As offshore contact centres rapidly closed…we were able to generate automations of those processes, allowing our client to onshore them back to the UK via automation. There are now three resourcing options: onshore, offshore and RPA.”

Ian Blackburn, Blue Prism Cloud

Blackburn said Robot Processing Automation (RPA) is now the third resourcing option alongside offshore and onshore solutions. “Those processes will not go back, this has changed that landscape dramatically,” he said.

AI has accelerated as a result of the crisis, whether it’s streamlining back-office processes or using chatbots to handle customer queries. “We’ve been chasing efficiency for a number of years and using AI where appropriate,” said Chris Thewlis of npower. “Other than using bots around the edges and to support the agents, we have now seen a gear shift in the use of AI through this crisis and once it’s in, why would you take it out?”

It’s not just frontline service that had to respond quickly; companies also had to roll out new billing and pricing solutions for hard-hit customers. Dual Energy, which delivers smart meter solutions for the SME sector, was among that had to respond quickly. “Billing customers to reflect their reduction in demand is quite complex,” said Jonathan Corbishley of Dual Energy. “By having the correct systems in place, we were able to get new product offerings within a week of going into lockdown.”

“We had a huge spike in website usage in the early days of the crisis and that has been maintained. It’s been a channel shift.”

Chris Thewlis, npower

The crisis has also seen a major channel shift, reported Thewlis. “There was a huge push to get customers to go to the website to get information, particularly in the early days of the crisis when we had limited numbers of people in place,” he said. “We had a huge spike in website usage and that has been maintained. It’s been a channel shift and something that we had all been chasing for years.”

Cloud: an app store of agile possibilities

Ian Blackburn of Blue Prism Cloud said the ability to respond at speed requires companies to have the right platform so they can rapidly integrate “wonderful and cool AI and machine learning” technologies. And this means “always-on” cloud.

“It’s almost like an app store, where you pick the solution off the shelf and put it in front of people and don’t worry about whether it will integrate into your processes,” he said. “It means you can really focus on how you are deploying it and how it will impact your people and customers.”

The future

No-one believes COVID-19 will be a short-lived or one-off crisis. “We have been looking at the future right from the outset of this crisis,” said Bill Bullen of Utilita. “It’s far from over and there will be a lot more change yet to come.”

“Hopefully we will embrace this catalyst for change…and we will be a much fitter, more capable and more confident business coming out of this.”

Bill Bullen, Utilita

He hoped the crisis will prove to be a catalyst for positive change. “We took 2,000 calls the day before and lost only four, which is ridiculously low. We have never performed so well and hopefully this will carry on and we will be a much fitter, more capable and more confident business coming out of this.”

“Our CSATs are higher than they’ve ever been…our NPS score has jumped 22 from the start of this crisis to now…and it’s people talking to people that’s making the difference.”

Chris Thewlis, npower

Chris Thewlis of npower echoed this. “We’ve seen some record results, our CSATs are higher than they’ve ever been since we started recording them in 2013 and our NPS score has jumped 22 from the start of this crisis to now, which is incredible,” he said. “And it’s people talking to people that’s making the difference, not people talking to automation. The trick now is how to use technology to give people simple answers to simple questions and filter out the unnecessary contact to allow more of these quality conversations to occur.”

This will be more important than ever as the full ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis are felt. “There are going to be financial implications,” said Thewlis. “We’re going to need to make sure our people are properly trained and invested in and that’s going to be a challenge because no-one is making any money in this industry and that creates a cost pressure.”

“The future is going to be about offering great service while taking massive chunks of cost out of the business and that’s going to need leadership and strategy with the right people and technology underpinning that.”

Ian Blackburn, Blue Prism Cloud

Ian Blackburn of Blue Prism Cloud agreed, saying the coming years will be about survivability. “We have seen a number of new entrants come in and fail and we will see that continue,” he said. “It’s going to be about offering great service while taking massive chunks of cost out of the business and that’s going to need leadership and strategy with the right people and technology underpinning that.”

Conclusion

It is clear that Cloud and AI technologies have had a profound effect on the ways Utilities organisations have been able to adapt to today’s “new normal” and ensure business continuity. From facilitating staff to work from home, to ensuring business critical processes aren’t compromised due to lack of staff availability, technologies such as Automation have provided the blueprint for operational agility. They have also been key to unlocking efficiencies in the future; often creating the opportunity for lasting change  and new delivery models to take root. Should you wish to learn more about how Intelligent Automation is helping organisations to realise a new future of work that integrates digital labour with their human workforce, visit www.cloud.blueprism.com.