Roundtable Analysis: What can the utilities sector do to drive positive change for their SME customers?
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UK businesses are facing energy bills so steep that their bottom line, and their very survival, is under threat.
The country’s 5.5 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) bear the most significant weight of this challenge, with recruitment hurdles and rising costs of living adding to the pressure. Government figures show that almost 2,000 registered businesses went bust in England and Wales in August 2022, representing a 43% jump over August 2021.
With 95% of the UK’s business sector dealing with this environment, what can the utilities sector do to drive positive change for their SME customers?
In a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Hayley Monks, Managing Director, Utilities, we invited a group of senior executives from leading UK energy companies to analyse the industry’s existing approach and answer this question. Here are the solutions that emerged during the session.
Refreshing Legacy Engagement Technology
The first point of discussion was B2B digital engagement experiences and what utilities companies can learn from customer behaviour, or other sectors that lead from a technological perspective.
Technology is critical for working at pace and remaining agile in this challenging environment. However, participants of the roundtable agreed that the utilities sector is struggling to digitise quickly enough for various reasons. While the industry is slowly updating its legacy systems, they are not suited to rapid and varied changes, so there’s a need for entirely new solutions or wrap-around support technologies to adapt to an agile and evolving B2B supply future.
One attendee noted that “call demand has gone through the roof” since the government failed to effectively communicate with SMEs or citizens about incoming support programmes. “Supply-first, technology-second” businesses have found it incredibly time-consuming to make the necessary changes, while technology-first enterprises have found it more manageable, leading the table to agree that digitisation is the golden ticket to enhancing support for SMEs.
Leveraging Data and RPA to Empower SMEs
The roundtable attendees felt that most gas, power, and water companies could use their data more effectively and must gain deeper expertise and optimal technology in this area. The resulting knowledge of customers, risks, opportunities, business moves, and failures will all enable improved forecasting, prevention, and recovery. However, endless competition and a nationwide talent shortage in technology hold the industry back.
Operational front-line teams can play a considerable part in data gathering and management, but providers should not rely solely on them. Instead, companies can enable technology to empower users to populate any missing data. Robotic Process Automation (RPA), for instance, can be a solid foundation for automated user-facing systems and a solution to employee retention challenges. However, attendees felt that RPA is underutilised and undervalued in the industry due to a lack of understanding or poor usage and deployment.
The successful blend of technology, data, and automation opens the door to citizen development, in which front-line agents can design and implement their own automated processes. These high-value skills are excellent for efficiency and give people a sense of purpose within the company.
Financial services emerged as a critical success case for RPA during the roundtable. FS companies that had already integrated automated systems before Covid were able to respond rapidly to urgent regulator changes when the pandemic hit. By reusing elements of pre-existing RPA solutions, these FS organisations had the agility to build new solutions to answer the need for high volumes of mortgage repayment holidays and bounce-back loans.
Utilities companies can also use RPA to identify, clean, populate and maintain data quality after specifying Minimum Standards of Data (MSoD). Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was another example that one attendee shared.
Enhancing Customer Engagement
Engaging with SME customers is more important than ever. Customers expect regular communications about service improvements, fluctuating costs, planned outages, and innovations or new services available. They also expect brands to help reduce their consumption and bills, do more for the environment, and provide exceptional experiences during sales or support interactions.
Even so, the table agreed that many utilities providers do not talk to or actively engage with a high percentage of their SME customer base.
Some of the potential solutions broached by attendees were to focus on planet-based and community-based strategies for engagement, such as “Save-Share” opportunities or deeper consumption insights for users.
By correctly tapping technology, the sector can share energy insights and create tailored, interactive dashboards for SMEs to view personalised consumption rates. “Nudge methodologies” could also enable changes in customer behaviour and act as another engagement method.
The table recognised that whilst innovation is necessary, the barriers of cost, resources, and time are far from insurmountable, and the return on investment needs to be compelling. It is critical, then, that utilities companies focus on exceptional execution of the basics and maintain consistency in this area since that represents another avenue of innovation.
In the end, everyone agreed that trust between utilities providers and SMEs is vital, but building that trust is an ongoing challenge.
Hayley Monks is Gobeyond Partners’ Managing Director for the Utilities sector.
Hayley previously held a wide range of senior executive roles in British Gas, before founding Think, Inspire & Create (TICL) in 2015, a business process improvement consultancy with a unique visual approach to helping clients to re-engineer and re-shape their organisations. Hayley is also co-founder of the Women’s Utilities Network and is passionate about connecting, supporting and developing women in the sector.