Digital transformation is disrupting every sector. Large firms with legacy systems struggle to keep pace with lean challengers able to take advantage of change. For utilities, the amount of prerequisite infrastructure has protected many of the industry’s ageing giants. The opportunities to deliver better customer experiences and generate efficiencies, however, are slowly bringing change to the industry.
Insightive.tv: What does digital transformation mean to you, what does it mean to First Utility?
Chris: For us, digital transformation is about customer service, customer experience and generating efficiencies. These outcomes revolve around creating intuitive channels of communication and analysing data.
It is vital that we enable our customers to self-serve, that is what customers expect. But, we also have to make sure that if they do call our contact centre, the agents are able to give them the best possible service on that channel. Digital tools are central to delivering both of these outcomes.
Our core business strategy revolves around providing the right customer experiences. I would actually hesitate to say that we have a ‘digital transformation’ strategy. We have a core business strategy that has digital transformation wound around it. Digital transformation is so central to what we do that it isn’t a separate priority, it is part of who we are. However, we are constantly innovating our platform so that we can always find new ways of improving experiences.
Insightive.tv: What do you think has been the main driver of your success in digital transformation?
Chris: There are two main reasons. First, for a utility, we are a relatively new company — only ten years old. We were able to start life knowing the headache that legacy tech can create for future digital transformation and built platforms that were able to evolve.
We have, however, had to invest in maintaining that freedom to adapt our processes and systems. That comes down to culture. Secondly, our success has been driven by building a dynamic culture. We empower teams to act on their own initiative, test, iterate and transform. We encourage collaboration between different teams across all of the different parts of the business and use a lean ‘agile’ MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach to development.
MVP refers to developing functional prototypes that we can put in front of customers. An MVP doesn’t have every ‘bell and whistle’, but it is a viable product for use by all of our customers, allowing us to get wide-ranging feedback. We can look at direct and indirect feedback based on what customers tell us and how they use it. We can then feed that information back into the design process and iterate improvements until we build something that truly fulfills our customers’ needs.
Insightive.tv: Can you get into the details of how you structure your teams — what do you mean by “empowering teams to act on their own”?
Chris: This has been a very important area of creativity for us. We turned the old segregated and hierarchical development process on its head. The old way is for designers to design something and then engineers to build it. This often resulted in the construction of a completely different product, creating inefficiencies and tension between teams.
Now, we assign projects to teams called ‘Pods’, that are made up of engineers, product owners and designers. All aspects of product development work together throughout the process in self-organising teams. Leadership gives them a job to do, and they are subject to review points, however we simply encourage them to go out and get the job done.
Teams are able to take responsibility for the development and delivery. Removing bureaucracy around decision making and development allows teams to execute much more efficiently, creatively and effectively around the goals that they are set. A large part of this is the ability to change direction quickly. When they get feedback from customers, they can just act.
We have been able to produce better products more efficiently through adopting this new collaborative environment. We use lean/agile. I have teams based in Coventry, London, and Krakow. We use tools like Slack and Kanban Boards to create a dynamic environment in which those teams are able to collaborate all of the time. We actively encourage our team members on the ground to research new platforms and present them to colleagues. We give teams research days to do just that. We are always looking to innovate, improving our products and experiences.
Insightive.tv: Where do you think digital transformation will take you in 5 years, what impact do you want to make at First Utility?
Chris: It is hard to say where we will be in 5 years — that is a long time when it comes to digital. Things change every six months. Our acquisition by Shell makes it even harder to predict. The amount of resources we now have access to is changing the game when it comes to digital. We have no shortage of ideas. The trick is picking the right one. Whatever we do, customers have to stay ‘front of mind’.
Personally, I don’t want to look at anything until we understand the value for the customer and the value for the business. Accelerating digital transformation would be great, but doing it for the sake of it doesn’t deliver. Change has to be undertaken from a strategic and business perspective for it to be meaningful.
My key goal is to continue to develop a platform that is capable of adapting to change so that we are able to take advantage of the changes in the future that we can’t even yet predict. Legacy is the issue that forces many companies to stagnate. We have proven, with our launch into new businesses like broadband, for example, that we are capable of implementing substantial change using our platform. I see a large part of my role as ensuring that this capability is maintained. I want that to be my legacy. I also want to do my part in expanding the role of women in IT by setting an example. That is something that I have been passionate about from the beginning.
What I love about my job is seeing things that customers need actually get delivered. It is a great experience getting feedback and being able to turn that into actions that benefit people’s’ lives. Our team is also great. It is a very open community, there is little hierarchy. Everyone has a role and we work together in an effective manner — that is really enjoyable. I think that cultural reality is the key to delivering on future change.
Chris Marsters is the Director of Digital at First Utility. She is responsible for customer-facing digital platforms and internal digital support. Placed at the cutting edge of industry development, Chris is a strong proponent of culture-driven change within the industry. Insightive.tv sat down with Chris to understand what has made First Utility so successful.
First Utility is a leading example of what can be achieved through a digital transformation in the energy sector. Founded in only 2008, First Utility is now the largest energy supplier in the UK outside of the Big 6. They were the first company to offer their customers smart meters (now standard across the industry) and have led the way in customer-driven development projects. During 2017, First Utility expanded into the broadband market. In March 2018, First Utility was acquired by their long-time partner Shell. However, they have retained their independence as a wholly owned subsidiary — continuing to lead the way in industry innovation.