How British Gas is using the Internet of Things to keep customers warm and happy

Technology is the key for revamping the energy utility and equipping it for the digital age.

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British Gas's mobile workforce uses social media and iPhones to better serve customers.

As IS director at British Gas, Ash Jokhoo is the man charged with making sure that the utility company has the right tech strategy. ZDNet caught up with him to talk about how BG is taking advantage of the Internet of Things and more.

ZDNet: Like any company, British Gas has to adapt. How does it do this today?

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Jokhoo: "Listening to what the customers are after is at the core of everything we do here."

Photo: British Gas

Jokhoo: If you look at British Gas, it has been around for 30 years and it has had to change throughout its history.

We have always understood that there is a deep conversation between the UK public and energy companies and giving that control back, so that customers can actually get to understand what it is they are using, and how they are using it, and how much its costing them. [This] is not something we used to do 20 or 30 years ago.

But in the last 10 years, it has become something we can actually do very easily.

Listening to what the customers are after is at the core of everything we do here.

For example, we have something we call Boiler IQ, which constantly senses what's happening with the boiler and if there is an issue can analyse the boiler. We will have already sent [to your home] the engineer who will have the right part to make sure that the customer is not without heat.

Having that information to make sure that does not happen is a big chain, but we now have the foresight to change the way we are doing things. It has changed the way we do business and I think there is a lot more of that to come.

How is that working out?

If you look at Hive, that's going really well -- we currently have over 350,000 customers using it. We've got the light, the plug, the sensor for motion, and we have just announced integration with the Amazon Echo Platform. Amazon has sold over three million of them in the US and we believe that this year it will be popular over here too.

So you will be able to just talk and say, "Raise the temperature" because [the Echo] will be integrated with Hive. It's growing at such a rate and this will be driving our offering.

But then, you have customers who are not on that technology and we want to make sure that when they interact with us, we can make things simple and easy.

Like all customers, and we have over 14 million of them, they will want processes that will work and we have to have systems that will work for them.

There is always room for improvement and that is part of what we are all about in systems. It's making sure that things get better and better for the customers.

Surely from customers' point of view, the main concern with gas is, 'how can I get it cheaper and how can I minimise my usage?'

That is a very good question and it is very difficult to answer. The bill, which on average is £1,200 a year, is not an insignificant amount of money.

But my answer your question is: how can we get people involved in that process? And to do that, you give them some control.

Now we are managing things so that people can see how much they are paying and when they are paying it. For example, look at our controllers. When we install these controllers everyone goes around the house switching things on and off so that they can see what they are paying and when they are paying. When they do that, all of a sudden the conversation has changed with the customer.

You have given them a tool to understand their own consumption. That's the first piece. The second is to be very transparent about prices.

There is a price war for commodities and so in that price war, we want to make it very clear for customers so they can see what British Gas is charging.

That is going to be the ongoing conversation, and not just for us but for all the utility companies. I think that is the driver behind what we are trying to do with technology.

Now currently, when we talk at our board meetings, technology is a side issue. But that is going to change and if we do that it can only help to make us stronger as a company.

What is the next big step for British Gas in terms of technology?

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British Gas is such a diverse company, so that is a very difficult question. You may not know that we are one of the top 10 insurers in the UK. We are regulated by the FSA.

We have 8,000 people in vans, so we have a highly mobile workforce and we have that number again answering phones and handling customer service. We have about 14 millions customers so it is all about building on that.

We have built a very stable platform at British Gas and now we need to extrapolate and leverage what we have there. The API economy, the digital pieces, that's all very well and they are very nice phrases, but actually converting and listening to what consumers need and want is absolutely the core aim.

We will continue developing our sensory capabilities, Boiler IQ, so the customers don't have to actually call us. We want to be people friendly in terms of what we are doing. That is certainly going on in technology at the moment and will enable us to do what people want. Watch that space.

So the technology is changing and you believe your staff are keeping up with that?

They are so enthusiastic. What they are really enthusiastic about is the Hive, because when they go around people's houses and talk to customers about it, [the customers] are enthusiastic.

When one of our engineers is talking to them, you cannot beat that interaction with the customer. Someone with a British Gas shirt on who is trusted by customers -- you can't beat that. The customer can see it and have it explained on the spot.

You have a huge staff. How do you get the word out to them about all this stuff?

We have team meetings. We have them every week and there is a process where messages are cascaded and, interestingly, that process is digitised as well. Sometimes they use WhatsApp, sometimes they use team briefings. We are using social media quite heavily too.

All of the engineers have iPhones and you might think, how does that work? Well, actually it works brilliantly for our engineers but more importantly for our customers because sometimes an engineer will go to a customer premise and find that he just doesn't have the tight part.

Now one of the things we don't like to do is go back to a customer and take time out of their day to be home. So with WhatsApp, the engineer on the premises can ask if anyone else has the part and is close at hand.

If another engineer can come and drop off the part, it saves the customer's time. And there are different supply chains that we have and different support to make things more efficient.

This is not coming from the centre. This is our engineers innovating. The tools are already there, they have the framework around them, the content and the rest-- and the engineers just adapt in the way they use the tool sets.

So now ecosystems are building around the UK, around processes and the engineers are owning it.

So the aim is to have a two-way conversation?

Yes, which has been very difficult in the past but the era of the smartphone has made it so much easier.

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