Presenting at the 2022 Digital Utilities conference, Goulburn Valley Water’s General Manager for Technology and Transformation, Tony Wulff, discussed how developing customer-led data strategies for utilities can offer greater efficiencies and unlock new community value.

Goulburn Valley Water not only supports the residents of the Goulburn Valley, but also Central Victoria’s massive agricultural industry, made up primarily of dairy, fruit and vegetable farmers. Serving such high-value clients led to an organisational shift in the utility’s role within the community, with management realising it wasn’t just a supplier of water; it was an enabler of community services.

“Our strategy’s now fundamentally changed to be a high value community enabler. Part of that shift is our organisation moving from an asset delivery business – a business that invests in building assets that then provide a service to the community – to a genuine service delivery based organisation,” Mr Wulff said.

“What that really means is we now start all our decision-making as an organisation at our strategy level, with an understanding of the impact we can have all the way through to the community level.”

This new approach demanded greater flexibility in its customer-facing systems, such as customer support and online messaging, and supporting infrastructure, some of which is more than twenty years old. “For us, that really looked like rethinking our whole architecture; enterprise IT architecture,” Mr Wulff said.

The four touchpoints for utility customers

Goulburn Valley Water’s aging IT infrastructure required a complete overhaul, which was made possible through targeted and informed investment. “We hadn’t invested in our technology for quite some time. Some systems we have here are 20-plus years old, so we decided that a technology investment was fundamentally critical to enabling a new strategy and delivering new value to the community,” Mr Wulff said.

“Our organisation has our technology and our transformation functions in the one business unit, so I’m responsible for both elements, and the reason that’s important is I need to understand and implement a model of how our business operates and then ensure we make the right technology decisions to enable that structure.”

The utility’s customer-led approach to its technology investment strategy allowed it to make informed and targeted investments that would deliver customer value. “We developed our technology investment strategy from the outside in. We started with our customers’ experience and what the touchpoints our customers have with a water utility are,” Mr Wulff said. Mr Wulff said the project team quickly found that customer engagement primarily took place at four key areas or ‘touchpoints’ within the utility’s day-to-day operations.

“The first is a technology digital touchpoint, whether that’s a website or social media. The second touchpoint is our meters in the ground at every residential house and commercial business that then generates a bill.” “The third place where we connect with our customers and our community is our operators in the field. Then lastly, our customer contact centres. Whether that’s the contact centre that works with land developers or plumbers, or our enterprise customers, or our front desk and contact centre for our residential customers,” Mr Wulff said.

Identifying and prioritising issues

Goulburn Valley Water implemented a ‘traffic light’ system for ranking the digital enabled service experience delivered through the previously identified touchpoints; green was good, amber was average, and red was poor.

This method of assessment allowed Mr Wulff’s team to quickly identify and prioritise its efforts, soon determining that while its social media presence and website functioned relatively well, more work was needed in its three remaining touchpoints. “We had a digital meter strategy in the infancy when we put this together, but it hadn’t been delivered, designed or deployed,” Mr Wulff said.

GVW’s outcomes focused digital strategy.

“More importantly, we were very manual in how we generated bills and how we got our bills to our customers. We had very little penetration in email billing; it was a lot of paper and envelopes at the point in time we did this assessment. “We saw that we were amber in that space only because we had an intelligent metering proposition and funding in a project.”

Though scoring relatively well in its metering strategy, Goulburn Valley Water quickly found several flaws in its customer-facing technology infrastructure and human engagement. “Our last two touchpoints were reds,” Mr Wulff said. “The human engagement with technology was terrible.

Technology should integrate and talk to each other behind the scenes to drive efficiencies in the business, which links directly to our prime goal of building capability and capacity using technology, but it was the opposite for our field team and our customer-facing teams.”

Such inefficiencies incurred not only an operational cost in reduced productivity, but severely limited Goulburn Valley Water’s ability to achieve effective and timely results for its customers.

Change from the bottom up

Addressing these challenges required a bottom-up approach, where management sat through a ‘day-in-the-life’ of its business teams using the full-breadth of their employees’ experience and skills to help determine the most efficient outcomes.

“My team spent a lot of time doing what we call ‘day-in-the-life experiences’; sitting with these parts of the business and understanding the flow of data, the flow of action, the different interactions with people and different teams to get that outcome,” Mr Wulff said.

The final touchpoint Mr Wulff and his team addressed was customer service, quickly finding similar issues in legacy IT infrastructure that impeded workers’ ability to perform their jobs in a timely and efficient manner.

These systems required operators to reference and collate data from several different sources for even the most basic of customer queries. “When our customer service team went to answer a phone call from a customer, they’d have seven different applications open on their computer screen at any given time,” Mr Wulff said.

“When a customer answered the phone, they had to get all of that basic data from the customer first, then type that into a system and then cut and paste it across systems to make sure they had all the right data for that customer in front of them.” Despite these issues, Goulburn Valley Water’s customer support team had found various solutions to these technology system challenges.

“It was actually a really interesting piece of work because we worked out that the technology was enabling inefficiency, but the people worked out ways to most efficiently leverage what they had to get the best outcomes for the customers,” Mr Wulff said. “They were so driven and passionate about delivering the outcome for the customer, they were working out innovative ways of making this process easier to deliver, but ultimately, we let them down from a technology perspective by not having a proper technology architecture.

“So moving forward, we worked out that we needed to invest in parts of technology in our business using the red, amber, green assessment of how customers engage or the community engage with our business and how we use technology to deliver those outcomes, then prioritised where we should spend our money.”

Building more efficient operations

Goulburn Valley Water’s customer-led digital strategy allowed the company to streamline its investments, procuring technology and developing systems that were tailored to the company’s unique needs and position within the community.

But the results of Mr Wulff’s digital strategy hasn’t just improved the utility’s existing services or systems, it has produced new data that fundamentally improved the organisation’s understanding of its operations and revealed new opportunities for growth and innovation.

“We use technology to deliver our water, our core ecosystem, but there’s all these one-step-removed opportunities that a water utility has that add value in the community and you need data from your technology to help you prioritise and determine which one’s the right one for you and your customers,” Mr Wulff said.

“As an example, we could do a completely different energy management program within our operations by leveraging real time data from our internal and external sources.

“We can do leak detection by using technology and we can help customers on their side of the meter detect leaks, which means that they have a better customer experience by using our technology. We can help customers think differently about how they may use water in a farming or a commercial operation and then improve the downstream effects on the wastewater side.

“We could do preventative healthcare programs by analysing the waste in our system and helping the healthcare providers get ahead of outbreaks like we did with COVID or gastro-type situations.”

Mr Wulff said taking advantage of the data produced by Goulburn Valley Water’s new systems could even allow it to undertake carbon abatement projects, including opportunities for the utility to deliver renewable energy to its industrial and agricultural consumers.

“We have this massive carbon problem, and by addressing this, we can deliver renewable energies to the community and factories to help them run more efficiently. “We’ve got biochar and energy-based value we can deliver from our waste plants, turning methane into power or turning our biosolids into biochar. This sequests carbon out of the atmosphere and we can use that on farms or to make energy in other ways.

“We also have fairly large farming operations, about 1,800 hectares, where we use our waste to farm cows, sheep, wool, grow crops and seed,” Mr Wulff said. Mr Wulff said that all utilities – not just those in water – could benefit from digitalising their systems with customer value at the heart. He stressed that customer-led and bottom-up reviews streamline investments and capitalise on existing knowledge.

Investing in these systems doesn’t just deliver benefits to the company but to the community at large, all while producing new platforms for innovation. “If you use data from within the whole ecosystem of technology, it can enable other value propositions for your community and your customers, just one step removed from your customer and your core business. That’s how Goulburn Valley Water’s leveraging technology and why we’re investing in it,” Mr Wulff said.

GVW’s high rate anaerobic lagoon cover generating power from gas.

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