A public utility company is one that maintains the infrastructure for a public service, like water, electricity, sewage and telecommunications. Utility companies are usually either government-owned or privately-owned with government regulation and oversight. The costs of building and maintaining the infrastructure is usually high, making utilities natural monopolies in the sectors that they operate in. This article will focus on electricity and water service provision.
The traditional business models for utility service provision are under threat, as consumers expect personalized services based on their experiences in other sectors. Even the service industry keeps changing in order to accommodate rapidly changing customer expectations and needs that are driven by personalized capabilities.
The article looks into how utilities can leverage technology, to improve the quality of service provided to customers. The first area is channels to support customer acquisition, payments and complaint response. For new customers, the information captured usually includes demographic, location (property) information which can be captured online, or at field offices and verified by field service personnel. However the customer needs to be to track the progress of the application by email, SMS or logging into an online portal.
The tracking of usage, and payments for service provision are mainly paper-based with a typical requirement for payment until zero balance on a month to month basis. However this does not provide the customers with information on what their typical usage is, the pricing schedule for the usage, and tips on how to reduce their usage. This applies to both postpaid and prepaid options. Payments have largely been improved through use of mobile money and bank deposits, however, there have been cases of users being disconnected due to the lag in data updates.
Complaint submission and resolution channels are an interesting area. Rather than focus on how to address the customer complaints, I would like to look at how the utilities can tackle the root cause which is maintenance, replacement and expansion of the aging infrastructure.
The utilities can provide channels for users to report damages, via SMS channels, or smart phone apps which can pinpoint exact locations via GPS, and even provide photographic evidence
The grid can also be made smarter so that maintenance teams pro-actively respond to problems without having to report to central locations, which improves response time. This would involve leveraging smart meters to monitor aspects of the grids such as electricity transformers, substations, water pumps & storage sites.
There is always pressure to prioritize expansion, without sufficient data on the demand. Measuring the patterns of existing demand and having parameters to support expansion helps speed up the decision process. This information can also be shared with the customers, to enable better planning hence improving the image of the utilities.
Alternate service generation like solar powered micro-grids, under-water spring sources, rain-water harvesting options help ease the burden for the water and electricity providers. This will require an internal mindset transformation first, followed by hard work to develop a conducive market model for smaller private players to support the utility grids.
That being said, technology advancement is not without its challenges:
Cyberthreats to smart meters, online services, and hand-held devices used by the field workers can create downtime which can also lead to potential backdoors into utility back office systems. This can subsequently cause hesitation by customers to add their confidential information.
Capital for investment where the ROI may not be quantifiable.
Knowledge and experience to transition from tradition to newer, complex, untried models.
Stifling regulations which do not provide the utilities with the ability to innovate in response to customer and market needs.
Despite the challenges, utility companies have no choice but to evolve or get left behind, dragging down the advancement of the societies and customers that they serve. As citizens of this country, it is imperative that we call out what we need or wish to experience in our utilities. It will also benefit each of us if we embrace technology solutions which will take us ahead, where the rest of the world is moving to.
Editor’s note: The author is Stephen S. Musoke, General Manager at ThoughtWorks Uganda. He is a technologist at heart but his current role in ThoughtWorks Kampala involves enabling software development teams deliver custom software for clients. In previous roles in other organizations, he has assisted customers identify user and business needs, defined technical specifications to meet those needs, evaluated vendor capability and supervised implementation of complex IT systems. He is passionate about growing the technology community in Uganda and on the continent.