Gas and electricity retailer First Utility began life in 2008 with the proposition of billing people on a monthly basis rather than quarterly and using analytics to help customers lower their bills. It is now the UK’s seventh largest energy supplier.
For CIO/CTO Bill Wilkins digital is all about interactions with the customer.
“Digital transformation is basically allowing customers to interact with us online. We put those digital interactions at the centre of every business strategy and tactic that we deploy,” he said.
“Nine years ago we saw an opportunity to disrupt the consumer energy market by billing people monthly based on real data, making people aware of how much energy they were using and using that data to optimise the pricing model. So we started as a digital company, we acquire almost all our customers through digital channels, and we serve them digitally in the majority of cases in everything they do,” he went on.
“For us digital means something different than what you’ll find in a traditional supplier or in other companies didn’t start off trying to be digital. I use the word ‘trying’ very deliberately because it’s very hard to do. We’ve worked at it day in day out, doing everything we can for our customers to transact online. We’re not perfect, and there are still gaps as to what we can and can’t do.”
Initially First Utility’s digital business model was based around smart meters. Six years ago these were a still a rarity in peoples’ homes, but seeing the opportunity they represented First Utility partnered with US SaaS energy analytics firm OPower to provide new free analytics services called My Energy that used smart meter data. This allowed customers to monitor and adjust their energy usage more easily. Other players have since arrived and the government is pushing smart meters as part of its wider digitisation programme meaning the firm has had to keep innovating to be noticed.
“Our differentiation has been eroded by other people entering the market, and more importantly the government programme making smart metering a de facto commodity for all energy customers by 2020,” Wilkins said. “But we haven’t sat on our laurels and let them catch up.”
Perhaps fortunately for First Utility, the government’s smart meter rollout has run into a series of problems, as covered extensively by V3, giving the firm a bit of breathing space. Wilkins is careful not to criticise the programme, though, pointing out that the government has a lot of different stakeholders to satisfy and any such rollout is inevitably going to be complex.