Few industries have been as burdened by change over the past 25 years as utilities. Industry restructuring, globalisation, deregulation, and digital technologies have upended a traditionally stable and comfortable operating model, characterised by a regulated monopoly, predictable demand, long service lifecycles, and highly commoditised products.

When customers in any sector are offered choice, research shows that service experience across the customer lifecycle becomes the major determinant in customer acquisition and retention. And the ability of agile challengers to respond to these drivers becomes a critical competitive advantage. At the same time, incumbent providers’ massive operating scale, a seeming impediment to agility, also creates a perfect laboratory for innovation.

The business challenge is the same for incumbents and challengers alike: how to offer reliable, personalised service at scale with constant customer-perceived improvements and keen pricing. For both incumbents and challengers, however, the solution begins first and foremost with the customer experience, and intelligent automation is a powerful competitive weapon for the utilities sector.

Better service through automation

Three management practices are central to automation in utilities: mass customisation, service quality (SERVQUAL), and customer life-cycle management. With highly commoditised products, it is in the customer-facing service dimension, where incumbents are most exposed and competition is most intense, that utilities can apply mass customization most productively.

What is impressive is how intelligent automation can be leveraged to address these management practices through high service, while generating analytics to improve and anticipate future service. What is surprising is how few utilities have yet to grasp the full potential of available automation opportunities within these practices.

Three examples

1. Personalisation at scale

In 2008, a national provider of electric power to residential and business customers became one of the earliest adopters of process automation, conducting several proof-of-concept implementations to explore the capabilities and potential of the technology. Typically, the provider’s initial focus was on efficiency, reducing operating costs by applying technology to handle rising transaction loads rather than hiring additional staff. At its peak, the utility’s digital workers were handling 500 separate processes involving 18 million work items, doubling the company’s initial forecasted productivity gains as automations grew.

2. Industry restructuring

Global energy industry restructuring, divestment and re-aggregation across the value chain is creating multiple demands for intelligent automation solutions. When a major energy conglomerate split its power generation and energy trading operations from its retail operations, it established a new listed company in 2016 with 13,000 employees supporting retail operations in more than 40 countries.

The company used RPA to optimise processes, increase compliance, and improve reconciliations in large-scale energy trading activities for greater efficiency. Integrating chatbots and artificial intelligence tools with its RPA platform, the utility automated its end-to-end procure-to-pay process.

3. Scaled retail distribution

Third example is a multinational retail energy provider with local operations in 30 countries serving 33 million customers that established a shared automation resource group to support its national customer-facing businesses.

The provider’s automation Center of Excellence (CoE) provides a trio of transformational consulting resources that ensure consistency, quality, and integrity across the multi-enterprise business family, creating innovations at scale. This CoE maintains a library of proven objects and automations, along with experienced and knowledgeable specialists, to ensure quality, promote consistency, and exploit innovations across the wider enterprise and its operating units.

Conclusion

As competition spurs innovation across the industry – enabled by intelligent automation – the journey path to greater value is clear: efficiency gains feed directly into enterprise effectiveness and customer enablement. Value grows exponentially.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Information Age. The original article can be found at https://www.information-age.com/how-should-utilities-harness-power-of-intelligent-automation-123496680/)