Insights and News /

05 March 2018 3 min read

Can robotics help serve water’s neglected SME customers?

Alex Metcalfe

Alex Metcalfe
Senior Manager | Energy, utilities and resources | London

The non-household water market opened in April 2017 - providing business customers the opportunity to switch retailer for improved pricing or in an aim to receive better service. However, there is general concern that retailers’ efforts and services towards wooing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are lacklustre, due to the fact they generally focus on large users, offering value add services and competing for multi-sites across the country, rather than SMEs, where profit margins can be low. However SMEs make up more than 90% of business customers in the market.

Tactical manual processes were a necessity in order to get the market up and running, requiring minimal set-up but creating high running costs, such as the manual processing of high volumes of market transactions. The risks around either human error or inadequate resource volumes carry a financial impact – tightly controlled Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and General Standards of Service (GSOS) penalties mean consistent failure to deliver a process compliantly will rapidly impact the financial viability of maintaining a non-household (NHH) retail operation.

As the market matures, cost to serve and margin optimisation will become differentiators - retailers who tick these boxes will be more equipped to retain and win customers. In our experience, the growing trend for automation and robotics could help. We see the following three areas as opportunities for robotic process automation (RPA) within water companies:

Meter Reading Exceptions
The handling of meter reading exceptions can be an intensive task leading to significant backlogs and inaccurate bills. RPA could help to turn these exceptions around quicker and reduce the high manual effort. This should also extend to the sending of these reads to the market, the receipt and processing of market rejections and the sending of re-reads.

Customer Service
Around 95% of inbound calls come from SMEs. Introducing RPA into call centres could help to reduce both customer waiting time and average handling time, as information can be pre-emptively made available to agents, ensuring they are able to focus their time on quality customer conversations rather than in-call front-office processes. Written customer contact could also be automatically triggered and chat bots could be used to reduce call volumes. In addition, businesses will be able to better meet their SLAs, in particular those which incur costs such as guaranteed service standards.

Debt Recovery
RPA could also assist with improving debt recovery. Where system automation is not possible, collection letters can be automatically triggered and customers can be more intelligently segmented based on previous interactions. AI and robotics allow these trends to be spotted in real-time and responded to appropriately, with data captured every step of the way.

In addition to the above, RPA provides other benefits to companies such as allowing processes to be run 24/7, improving auditability, and allowing employees to spend less time on manual tasks, instead performing more value-add activities.
As the market matures, water suppliers will need to be able to mobilise change at pace and quickly respond to evolving customer needs and opportunities to differentiate, without sacrificing margin. Major system overhauls or a back-office workforce are no longer the tools to deliver this, particularly as the industry prepares for a possible transition to a competitive domestic water market. RPA will be fundamental in allowing the NHH water market to deliver for customers, both through enhancing the quality of current processes and allowing the effective deployment of new capabilities.