Disrupting the energy sector with tech-driven customer experience
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Disrupting the energy sector with tech-driven customer experience

Jessica Twentyman — July 2015
How UK gas and electricity start-up First Utility is using innovative CX to challenge the market’s ‘big six’ incumbents.

Wholesale energy costs may have been falling over the past year, but gas and electricity bills still account for a painfully large proportion of household budgets. In the highly de-regulated UK market, that has sent many bill-payers in search of less costly suppliers. Around four million (8% of the country’s energy customers) are now eschewing the ‘big six’ utility providers (British Gas, EDF, SSE, Scottish Power, npower and E.ON) for one of the almost two dozen energy start-ups.

These independents trade in energy but typically don’t own the generating plants from which they buy their power, enabling them to focus on lower-cost deals, simpler pricing, customer service, greener energy supply and, increasingly, digital innovation for monitoring and managing energy consumption.

First Utility is one of the ‘challenger’ brands that are successfully luring households away from more traditional providers (switching supplier in the UK typically takes two to three weeks). In late May the £562 million ($874m) company announced that its customer base had more than doubled to 800,000 in one year.
Bill Wilkins CIO First Utility
Bill Wilkins, CIO at First Utility

The promise of lower energy costs may be what draws new customers to First Utility, but what keeps them loyal is a compelling, data-driven customer experience, according to CIO Bill Wilkins. This is provided by an online and mobile portal — a ‘consumer engagement platform’ — called My Energy, which enables customers to view their energy consumption patterns in easy-to-understand ways. As a result they can compare usage patterns against other, similar customers and work out strategies to reduce their bills even further. By taking the same approach to data visualization that Internet giants such as Amazon and Spotify use, says Wilkins, First Utility can help its customers feel more in control of their spending.
Beyond smart meters

“Smart meters deliver a number of benefits, but we don’t believe they’ll be a differentiator for companies like ours over the long term,” says Wilkins. “In fact, the value to customers of having half-hourly smart meter data tends to drop off pretty quickly if they can’t understand it, see patterns in it, put it to good use.”

“That’s why we’ve invested so heavily in building an online portal designed for use by consumers, not engineers. We focus on infographics, not complex charts, and on things like simple reports, headline figures and energy-saving calculators,” he says.

My Energy was originally designed and built in partnership with Opower, a US-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of cloud-based apps for the utility industry. But that development was made exclusive as the value of its platform became clearer to First Utility. “The Opower partnership gave us a time-to-market advantage, making us the first in the UK to launch an energy engagement platform. But it’s been so successful for us that we wanted to bring it in-house, invest in it more directly and control the innovation strategy ourselves,” says Wilkins.

“We’re passionate about owning the customer experience.”

From now on, then, My Energy will be developed solely through the efforts of Wilkins’ own team of around 65 developers. In fact, keeping development in-house is a rule he applies to almost all technologies that First Utility customers engage with directly.

“One of the disciplines I brought to the company when I joined in 2010 was an understanding of the build/buy continuum: where we should spend time, money and effort in developing our own technologies, and where we should buy from a third-party provider,” he explains.

First Utility’s CRM system, for example, falls into the latter category: “We use Salesforce.com, because we don't think we can get any differentiation here and I can’t use our own internal subject matter expertise to build a better CRM system than Salesforce.com already offers. It’s a good way of solving a problem that I don’t have to keep revisiting every time we meet a new threshold in our growth, or every time someone in the business needs a new CRM feature.”

“But on the other hand we’re passionate about owning the customer experience. So our online and mobile customer engagement channels are all built internally, on top of an event-driven integration platform based on REST [Representational State Transfer] that we designed and built from scratch internally.”

Wilkins believes that First Utility was one of the first companies in the UK to take this approach. The integration platform provides a layer with which all the applications that his team creates (all of which have their own built-in REST services) can communicate. That may sound like a big effort — indeed, it was, Wilkins confirms — but it’s hardly surprising, given his background. Before joining First Utility as CIO he worked for Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, running the vendor’s enterprise applications integration group.

“[Our] investors and executives recognized that technology had to be at the heart of any challenger brand’s differentiation.”

The next big launch for Wilkins and his team will be a new ‘Auto Read’ feature for the company’s mobile app, designed for customers who don’t yet have a smart meter in their homes. It uses optical character recognition so that, when a customer points their smartphone at their meter, the information it displays can be captured on video (making it easier to adjust for low lighting conditions) and then automatically stored with a time and data stamp before being submitted to First Utility. The new feature will initially be accessed via the ‘Labs Beta’ section on First Utility’s mobile app, where customers get the chance to try out and give feedback on new technologies.

“When I was first approached [to be CIO at] First Utility I was lucky to find a bunch of investors and executives who recognized that technology had to be at the heart of any challenger brand’s differentiation,” says Wilkins.

“The role has brought me a place at the top table [Wilkins is a board member as well as part of the senior executive team] but I’ve also had the luxury of building up a brand new platform for the company that depends very much on our own internal development expertise. That’s incredibly exciting and motivating for me and my team.”
First published July 2015
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