How technology can make happier energy clients

Utility companies in the UK are at a crossroads. They face a myriad of challenges and changes to the way they produce, distribute and sell their products. Your Ready Business spoke to David Clark, Group Director of Innovation, Information and Improvement at Northern Gas Network (NGN) on how innovation can help drive a better customer experience.  

How can energy companies transform their business to succeed in today’s environment and in the future?

We need to look at how we operate radically in the context of a digital, hyper-connected world. I was hired to advise NGN on how we can operate in the context of this world, and how we get an idea into operation quickly.

We’re trying to take a very traditional and slow moving industry and re-engineer or change our entire philosophy. We need to learn from other industries, such as retail, which is moving quickly to meet the demands of the changing business environment. Utility companies should approach this change with exactly the same philosophy.

That means innovating the way the whole business currently operates, flattening hierarchies and empowering both consumers and staff. People need to be able to use the devices they want, to access the systems they need. Systems need to be designed from a user’s perspective, not a technological one. It should be simple, nice to use and information should be relevant. It’s about giving control back to the user and how you can monitor things more efficiently.

If an engineer has an idea that could improve the operation, we should be thinking about how quickly we can get that idea up and running. Great ideas might not always be about generating revenue, it can be about improving customer service, our efficiency, or our effectiveness. Utility companies have to catch up with the rest of the world. It doesn’t take Apple 8 years to get an idea into fruition.

Technology as an enabler

At NGN, we are trying to view new technology as an enabler. For example, we can send drones to go and take aerial photographs. This saves us putting up scaffolding, which can cost a lot of money. Traditionally we’ve often viewed technology as just a way to replace a particular task, it actually can change the entire business. And that’s what we’re trying to encourage people in the business to do more.

There’s also the customer side. They want to be able to access information anywhere and in anyplace. It’s about having an omnichannel approach so they can connect to us at anytime.

Collaboration, empowerment and customer experience driving towards our energy future

Every week at NGN we have what we call a discussion group where all the directors and colleagues in the business explore how to come together from a customer experience.

The main benefit for our customers is less disruption. Often the only time the customer sees us is when there is a van stopping their gas flowing, or when they smell a leak or when we need to turn their gas off. Our aim is to minimise the times that they see us and create a seamless service that works all the time.

We also want to empower our workforce, for example helping the guys in the front line to put any problems right straightaway, right then and there. Not pass it through six layers of command. We want to empower our field workers to always do the right thing by our customers.

Customer service and customer experience is key for us. We’ve just won 6 awards for customer service and another award recently for customer experience.

How do you create an innovative company culture?

A lot of people think that innovation is the creation of a new widget, a new pipeline etc., but a lot of that is just improvement of what we already do. Innovation to me is about challenging business models and challenging the way you do work at a core level.

We’re doing that by giving people the comfort that they can fail. I don’t mean fail in the way that would impact the safety criteria but giving people the understanding that they can experiment with new ways of working in a controlled and safe way.

Employees will only be able to do that if they have the right confidence and trust from the company. Our CEO Mark Horsley has been working hard in creating a culture of passion, enthusiasm and commitment and above all the ability to try something new. It’s about how we unlock all the ideas people have in their heads and getting them implemented in our business as fast as possible.

We use a model called paste layering, which is a concept that I got from my experience working at Gartner. It’s the idea that every business should think of itself as layers. There’s an innovation layer, which is fast moving and agile, there’s a differentiating layer, which is a little less fast moving, then there’s the foundation layer, which is slow moving. All companies have all these different layers, but allowing them all to co exist is what makes a really smart company.

In the end it’s really about recruiting the right people for your organisation. It’s about blending skills from digital natives to skills of people with experience in the industry to create an innovative environment.

Energy companies in 10 years time

10 years from now, we will not only have different types of pipes and energy, we’re also likely to have a different type of workforce. We will be a very different looking company because there will be less physical interactions and with a different workforce mix. We won’t have to do as much of things such as asset replacement and management.

There will probably be less people in the field, and there will be a more flexible workforce, where you can scale up and down to meet the demands of what’s required. I think it’s the same shift that every business will face in the future because of the advancement of technology.

In the future we’re likely to see more shared energy communities. Energy trading is also a long-term trend, which means communities put energy back into the grid. This is something energy companies must cater for.

There is no doubt that innovation will be affecting this technological industry in a great way. We believe the successful ones will be those that embrace it sooner rather than later and as David Clark mentioned, if a structured industry like energy can embrace it then so can you.