U is for Utilities

Utilities is a smart business. Oodles of data, long term business models, critical national infrastructure. It’s a natural play for big data and analytics to make a structural difference to how these companies operate, right?
My colleagues published a great piece of analysis last week looking at the reality – that they see the potential, but they can’t translate that ambition into action. They are lagging behind most industries.
Those that are investing are predominantly driving operational improvements – no surprise given the extreme asset and capital intensity that most (physical) utilities face. But more surprisingly and, I suggest, more worryingly is where the customer appears in this priority list…
“less than 10% of utilities respondents (Board members, C-Level executives, heads of department, managers) believe that customer service is their main area of responsibility, highlighting a lack of focus on customer service at the executive level”
I’ll give you an example from just yesterday. I’m lucky enough to live in a fairly well populated part of the UK. I rely on power when I work from home for my Mac, my desktop phone (it’s a fancy one) and my broadband. Yesterday I was…

  • …working away when… <everything dies>
  • 1 minute passes, then the power comes back on (with many local house alarms)
  • Everything spins up
  • Back to work, quick check on any lost files
  • 5 minutes pass
  • Working away when… <everything dies>
  • 1 minute passes, then the power comes back on (with many more house alarms)
  • 5 minutes pass
  • … etc

This happened four times.  Now two things occurred to me. One is that I need to buy a UPS for my broadband and work from my laptop… the second that there must be a serious fault. Now in the UK we have a deregulated system – power infrastructure is separate from who I buy my electricity from.  So I dig out the number of the infrastructure provider and call them up, get through very quickly and speak to a very helpful operative who tells me,
“ahh yes, we have had 76 calls, there is planned work being done on your local substation – they need to switch over supplies whilst they make changes –  which causes a drop for a minute – it will carry on for some hours”  and so it did – ten drops in all.
But this is crazy. They know who is supplied by which part of their supply. They had my details (or at least some of them) and it was planned work. And now I am dissatisfied not just with my power provider but also the infrastructure provider… and they had received 76 complaints. As a monopolistic supply of the backbone infrastructure I can’t vote with my feet, unless I build my own power supply in the garden, and my neighbors might react badly to me building a geothermal source, a wind turbine or dam (though it sounds like a fun project)
My frustration is simply that, at least for planned maintenance it is a data management challenge – but not one that is hard to resolve and it enables proactive customer service.  The infrastructure provider needs to change their mindset – they are serving the customer, albeit by proxy.
If I had known of the issue ahead of time then I would have fought the rush hour traffic and gone into the office.
Mind you, last time I got stuck in the lift when the power failed…

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