I got into the heat part of the business in 2007 and initially I started as a project development manager. At the time we didn’t have a heat business so it was all new ground for us, a total blank canvas. We knew what we wanted to do but we had no customer service solution, didn’t know our delivery agents; we had no foundation. There were 2 PDM’s at the time, myself and a lady called Cat Cooper. She took on the metering side and I took on the customer services side, as I had worked in that role before for about a year in 2001, so I was obviously an expert after a year! But that’s what we started with and we developed it from there.
Our first network was Woolwich, and in Phase 1 we were supplying 464 domestic customers with heat, hot water and private wire electric. It was all unchartered ground, we’d never done it before so we tread cautiously and found our feet as we went on. We made mistakes so early on but the best way of understanding the market is making mistakes because you learn from them pretty quickly.
It took us about a year to get up and running in 2008 and from there, with the 464 customers at Woolwich, we now have just about 12,500 customers on our heat networks now. How did you manage that exponential growth?
We've introduced scalability. Within the contact centre, we not only have Heat customers, we’ve also had at one point I think it was over 50,000 water customers, 500,000 Street Lighting assets, working with private wire, our site at Slough (Slough, Heat and Power), so we’re quite diverse with customers we work with.
And we've done things in a modular way: once we've had one supply type settled and embedded, we've taken on another. We’ve reacted to it and built upon it. And, you know, I haven't done this alone, I’m surrounded by a fantastic team who deserve all the praise.
In my personal view, I think it's trifold. There's three elements from my perspective which are cost, risk and education. Which are the challenges to reaching this net zero utopia.
The cost of switching to a new technology until you reach economies of scale in terms of rolling out new supply type of venture, it'll always be costly for the end user and it may deter our customers from installing or taking the risk on the new technologies because of the cost.
And it will also ultimately impact the end user customer. The tariffs may be much higher than traditional gas and electric at the beginning of the set, which can be off putting.
The second point is risk. Technology is moving so fast and there is a risk here as we plunge into what we think is a new sustainable technology that, we could find out in five years time, there’s in fact something bigger and better that overtakes a market. And then it's always a gamble.
And the third is education, which comes in two forms. We're experts in what we already know but we will need to develop new skills to manage the new technology. And then, not even just to just update our own knowledge, but focus on the customer education piece needed too. We can't take it for granted that all of our customers understand the energy business and the benefits beyond the cost. So, we'll need to work hard to take them on the journey with us.
The contact centre operates on a 24/7/365 basis with services to our supply and distribution customers. It ranges from billing complaint handling, debt management to triaging phone calls for all of our critical assets and beyond.
We also tailor bespoke service solutions for each sector and within the sectors for each project, really, because they all have different look business models dependent on what their clients want. They all have regulatory and contractual conditions that differ and we need to be aware of them to be able to devise the service solution and to really understand what the deliverable is. It’s important that my team are involved in the project as early as possible so that we can tailor a solution to each contract as well.
I'd like my team to get the recognition for all of the hard work that they do, because it’s more than just this example. That said, I think one of our biggest successes was when we transformed the contact centre from what was an office based environment to a 24/7 home based business. And we did this in one month. It was triggered by the COVID pandemic back in early 2020 and as a team we had a sense that things weren’t right with all the news updates we kept receiving.
So mid-February, I took the decision from a BCP point of view to order laptops and mobiles for every member of staff in my in my area, just as a contingency. This wasn’t normal back in 2020. Not all office based staff had mobiles and they didn't certainly have laptops either. But luckily by us acting quickly like that, we got to the front of the queue for that, because laptops like toilet paper and all the rest of it became very scarce in those first couple of months.
We took receipt of all the equipment in early March and trained the staff on how to use it all; how to log on, use the applications, get it all up and running. After we carried out the training, we decommissioned their normal office based fixed asset, and they were working day to day on their laptops.
The following couple of weeks we prepared ourselves for the worst case scenario which was the closure of the offices and devised home based processes so that we could continue to serve our customers.
Then, I think it was Monday, the 20th of March, we took the decision to allow our most vulnerable staff members to work from home. And we just did that, just said, look, let's try this, go home, we don't want you traveling in if you've got vulnerable people in your household. And by the end of the week, by Friday lunchtime, we were in full working from home model and we had managed to achieve this without any down time and service to the customers done.
So, you know, this was really exceptional. And all while our staff were scared because, you know, this was affecting them too. They weren't immune to all of this and they were uncertain about what was next in terms of how the pandemic would affect them in their and their own families. They all rallied together to ensure we kept the lights, the water, the heat, the cooling and the electricity on for all of our customers.
The number one deliverable is service. We strive to be the best in class. We'd love to be world class, but to ensure that irrespective of what customer type we're engaging with, they receive the very best experience from my contact centre, whether it be face to face on the phone by email or social media.
It's easy to forget that we’re people too; behind the calls, behind the screens. We hear our customers, we understand and we care as we would if we were on the other end. It can be lost in big companies but there is a real humanity to our work and in our team. And it’s delivering a service to be proud of that underpins what we do as customer support.