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Raised customer expectations will promote innovation, conference hears

Greater competition in the water industry will stimulate innovation but may also lead water companies to be more guarded about sharing useful information and collaborating, delegates at the WWT's Water Industry Technology Innovation conference heard yesterday.

The conference in full swing in Birmingham yesterdayThe conference in full swing in Birmingham yesterday

Amanda Reynolds, Customer Service Director at Affinity Water, told the conference in Birmingham that non-household competition from April 2017 and the advent of household competition which is expected to follow would sharpen the focus on customer needs.

“If markets go competitive for households, customers will be voting with their feet if customer service is not there,” said Reynolds. “When we think about innovation it has to be linked to the customer and their needs. If we are creating the latest clever app, it has to be something that people will actually use, that makes people’s lives easier.”

Adam Cooper, Director of the new retail market at Ofwat, said that feedback from customers would have a telling effect in an open market. “Once you give people choice, you give them the right to complain. When there is competition I would expect complaints to increase. So it won’t be the case that the industry wants to offer innovation for its customers – it will be the customers who will demand it,” said Cooper.

But giving a contrarian view, Piers Clark, chairman of Isle Utilities, raised the prospect that customers would be only interested in price and it would therefore lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ of offering a basic service only.

“What if the customers say – just give me plain vanilla, give me the water nice and cheap?” asked Clark. “We’re then in a race to the bottom, and will that really drive innovation?” He added that competition could also encourage water companies to think individually and separately, rather than picking up on ideas that could raise collective standards in the industry.

Later, Eddie Wrigley, Innovation facilitator at Northumbrian Water, picked up on this theme and said that some of the most disruptive innovation might come from large companies currently outside the water industry bringing forward multi-utility offerings.

“If household competition does come in it is going to be a massive driver of innovation, because it is about added value offerings,” said Wrigley. “What will those added value offerings be? I don’t know, but if I knew I wouldn’t tell you,” he joked.

The conference also heard about a host of new technologies and innovations in the pipeline for the industry, including 3D scanners, virtual reality headsets for use in design, wearable wristband technology for field staff, cloud-based artificial intelligence and energy storage.

WWT’s Water Industry Technology Innovation conference took place on 29th November 2016 and was sponsored by Veolia, Xylem, British Gas and SEAMS.

Author: James Brockett,
Topic: Innovation
Tags: water companies , customer service , Innovation

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