01 Apr 2022

When it comes to innovation in the UK’s water industry, it’s time to hit the campaign trail

By Samuel Van-Arnold, Strategy Manager, Gentrack

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Recently in our blog series, we’ve focused a lot of attention on rising living costs and the steps suppliers in the utility sector need to be taking now to support their customers [read previous blog post]. It was with this in the forefront of my mind that I attended the Utility Week Customer Summit in Birmingham this month for the water sector day – keen to hear from the best minds in the industry on how we tackle these challenges.

One of the key themes that stood out for me throughout the day was innovation. There was barely a speaker who didn’t mention it, and it’s clear that an injection of innovation into the industry is needed more than ever, given the scale of the challenge water retailers are facing. The escalating cost-of-living crisis and the ever present need to improve environmental standards highlighted the need for data and technology to revolutionise the sector.

Build back better

There were a couple of innovation talks that particularly resonated with me. The work by Angela MacOscar and her team at Northumbrian Water and the way they’ve embedded innovative solutions across the whole organisation is incredible. One example was their use of a product called Vyntelligence – described as “TikTok for customers and field employees” who are able to submit short videos of an issue to specialised team members. These specialists can then provide expert support and enable the sender to resolve the issue without in-person support. This has helped Northumbrian Water to reduce site visits by a third. The cost and time benefits of this are huge – more customers have their issues resolved first time, and there are environmental benefits from fewer staff travelling and solving leaks sooner.

Yes we can

Whilst innovation is key to unlocking the future, the only way new technology will be accepted is if there’s trust. Rupal Patel at Capita Consulting spoke about how smart meters have a potential to revolutionise the sector. Except there’s a paradox – increasing the amount of data available to retailers is a great tool for increasing trust, customers receive accurate bills and suppliers can automate their processes to create a smooth, tailored customer experience. However, for suppliers to access that data in the first instance, customers need to trust their supplier and allow sharing of data with them. It’s not surprising then that the smart meter rollout has taken so long to deliver in the energy sector where customer trust is consistently low. If water retailers want to mass deploy meters across the country, it’s essential that trust is built first.

For the many, not the few

The issue of trust was also raised by Warren Buckley at Thames Water. Customer satisfaction has been a huge issue at Thames Water, and they recognised a new approach was needed to increase trust. They’d found that experiences faced by customers across their large region were vastly different, and this needed to be reflected in the support that they provided. In response they took the bold step of on-shoring their contact centres and creating two new hubs within their region – one in the Thames Valley and the other in the city centre. Having local customer service teams meant that employees shared similar experiences to their customers and could empathise with the challenges they were facing. This change drove increased customer sentiment and trust – a great platform for engagement and developing technology in the future.

Make water great again!

All in all, I came away from the day feeling optimistic. I’m a strong believer in the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. Never before has this been truer and in a world where suppliers are facing an increasingly challenging environment, the only way to thrive is through innovation. It’s a great time to be in the water sector and part of an organisation that is helping suppliers achieve great customer satisfaction. I can’t wait to be part of the innovation that is unlocking technology to increase efficiency and drive-up standards in customer service.

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