Utility Week

UTILITY Week 29th January 2016

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26 | 29TH JANUARY - 4TH FEBRUARY 2016 | UTILITY WEEK Event Conference Water Customer Conference, Birmingham, 20 January 2016 Open market needs to retain customer focus Water companies must ensure they don't lose sight of the customer as they move towards a competitive market. Lois Vallely reports. T he water sector faces an important year in 2016. It is the year the bulk of preparation will be made for when the market opens for non-household retailers, paving the way for competi- tion. According to Ben Jeffs, chief executive of Market Operator Services Limited, water companies have "really started gearing up". Speaking to delegates at the Utility Week Water Customer conference, sponsored by Aiimi, Jeffs said he was impressed with the level of engagement with market opening across the sector. Competition between retailers will improve customer service through innova- tion. But the focus should not be solely on retail, insisted Yorkshire Water chief execu- tive Richard Flint. How should water com- panies go about driving service excellence throughout the value chain? Any plan must include the wholesale business, which will continue to operate in the future. "It's very easy to forget that wholesale businesses are still going to have to provide a fantastic level of customer service," Flint said. But companies must not lose sight of their customers here and now. Sarah Bent- ley, chief customer officer at Severn Trent Water, passionately stated that customer ser- vice was "all about delighting your custom- ers". In contrast, Dr Phil Klaus, professor of customer experience and marketing strategy, warned that companies must simply learn to "not upset your customers". Information is key to good customer ser- vice and to a successful market opening, and Alan Lovell, chairman of the Consumer Council for Water, said he wanted to see "more sharing of good practice". Delegates heard that companies must "fall in love with information", because if used correctly, it is the differentiator between one company and its competitors, but if used incorrectly it can be the weakest link in the chain, according to Tom O'Farrell, commercial director at Aiimi. It was pointed out that awareness cam- paigns are expensive. Asked who will be responsible for footing the bill for making non-household customers aware of market opening, the speakers replied almost unani- mously that it should be the responsibility of the incumbent wholesalers. "There is no doubt that it is the incumbents that have the prime responsibility," said Lovell. Flint added that there is a danger that the sector will focus on the data and the systems for market opening, but "there has to be a demand". Companies must be ready, but the point of the competitive market is to "serve the needs of people". Ben Jeffs, chief executive, Market Operator Services Limited "I like to think of 2016 as the year in which it actually happens. This year will see every single aspect of the programme complete, apart from the actual market opening." Views from the table: Richard Flint, chief executive, Yorkshire Water "One of the key things for us to grasp as participants in the sector is that actually a greater level of granularity from different elements of the value chain is a very, very positive

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