Organising IS in line with the business is how Bill Wilkins keeps the function relevant and strategic. In 2016 he extended the online customer platform to provide a new upsell channel, driving sales of higher-value tariffs and smart home products. He revamped the tariff registration system, doubling the conversion rates. He delivered a cloud-based, multichannel voice/chat platform that gave the 1,000-seat contact centre greater resilience and lower costs, and shifted 10% of contact volume to social/chat channels. And a raft of other optimisation and automation initiatives he introduced took another 10% off the cost-to-serve per customer.

Full name
Bill Wilkins

Job title
CIO/CTO

Company name
First Utility

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Every one of my seven years in First Utility has been different, from a startup trying to prove the asset-light, independent, smart energy supplier model in 2009, through managing the challenges of growth in the middle years, to optimising the cost model, and now diversifying the product portfolio away from core energy. The business technology team (BTG) within First Utility has been partnering with our business stakeholders and leading with innovation to drive these changes.

The role of CIO is constantly evolving within our industry and the traditional IT-based description now fails to capture what most CIOs and CTOs do for their firms. The traditional CIO roles of securing scalable information systems through integration of best-in-class business solutions to deliver valuable business insights has evolved to require delivering great customer interactions and shaping future business investments. This is certainly true at First Utility where the BTG team are responsible for shaping the company’s investment programmes, and designing and delivering the digital experiences our customers receive.

More specifically in 2016, our technology team helped drive the three pillars of our evolved strategy:

  • Expand our product portfolio into adjacent segments (telco, home services).
  • Continue to optimise the core, retail supplier model to allow us to continue to offer fair prices to consumers.
  • Support market and geographic expansion.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
Within the UK, the BTG at First Utility is aligned to the three strands of our development plans: product and channel diversification, business model optimisation, and regulation and risk management. In 2016, BTG delivered the following against these themes:

  • Product diversification and optimisation: Customer-led design to optimise product and tariff journeys that doubled sales conversion and improved product mix towards longer-term fixed tariffs. Added new digital sales channel by extending our My Energy consumer engagement platform. Added our first non-energy ‘core’ product offer in the form of a very competitive telephone and broadband offer, diversifying our core business model.
  • Business model optimisation: Implemented a new cloud-based, multichannel contact centre platform and shifted around 10% of contact volume to more flexible social/chat channels. Implemented automation of around 30 material processes, delivering a further 10% reduction in cost-to-serve per customer. Extension of our Ask First chatbot to improve answer rates and contact deflection. New online help centre combined with NLP query detection and new multimedia content to reduce customer contact rates.
  • Regulatory and licence compliance: Supported UK smart metering initiatives and the redevelopment of the UK gas distribution and supply market coordination systems.
  • Other/organisational development: Built new R&D centre in Krakow, Poland, to expand our ability to capture the best technical talent to serve our growing international business. Completed the acquisition of our core customer care and billing solution, which has led to increased velocity and capacity to evolve this core capability.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?

Products and channels

  • Extended our My Energy platform to provide a new upsell channel, driving sales of higher-value, longer fixed tariffs and our smart home products.
  • Revamping our tariff registration system, doubling the conversion rates.
  • New tariff upsell and future tariff ‘reservation’ features to optimise our product mix to improve core energy profitability.
  • Delivered a new fixed line and broadband solution, allowing bundled offers of energy and telco to our UK-based customers.

Business model optimisation

  • Delivered a new cloud-based, multichannel voice/chat platform to support our 1,000-seat contact centre at higher levels of resilience and lower levels of cost and shift around 10% of contact volume to social/chat channels.
  • Enhanced customer service capability and self-serve functionality, contributing to Good Housekeeping Reader Recommended and Customer Service of the Year awards. Both judged against online and telephone experience.
  • Multiple additional process optimisation and automation, delivering a further 10% reduction in cost-to-serve per customer.
  • New complaint management tool to ensure that each complaint is better tracked and resolved in a timely manner.
  • UK smart metering programme – developed systems and processes to provide our households with UK standard smart meters and associated smart energy services ready to increase the adoption of smart meters to around 40% of our population in 2017.
  • Completed the acquisition of our customer care and billing solution, bringing it in-house to optimise the delivery of our product roadmap at a faster pace and lower cost.

Technology innovation

  • Implemented new data collaboration portal, providing a single-stop shop for all of our data insights and related data products (Zoomdata).
  • Expanded security programme implemented advanced real-time threat detection and monitoring across our offices (Dark Trace), and implemented advanced ‘learning’ firewalls to improve internal protections (Palo Alto).
  • New cloud-based contact centre (Serenova).
  • Use of NLP on email/chat to detect customer propensity to complain to drive proactive intervention.
  • Implemented new developer collaboration and lean engineer tools (Slack, Lean Kit).

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
A challenge for any growing business is resisting the urge to implement overweight governance that looks enticing at first pass, but mainly serves to slow the rate of innovation. Finding the right balance between documented governance and entrepreneurship and innovation can take a lot of effort. I believe that similar to the saying ‘culture beats strategy’, the same can be said for governance – ‘culture beats [heavyweight] governance’.

What I mean is that if you create an environment which encourages creative thinking and pace but also makes people accountable for their decisions you can gain the right balance of governance without having to debate and document the small print of exactly what that means in every scenario (which, of course, defeats the whole objective of trying to achieve lightweight governance). Our investors are still entrepreneurial and they expect our organisation to exhibit those traits, being willing to experiment and deliver new ideas at pace, and incrementally. Reinforcing this culture at every opportunity is important to keep the essence of the disruptive brand we are, even though we now have over 1,400 people in the business.

Complementing this we have relaunched our innovation processes, committing one day per month for research, and supporting a range of networking events, both internal and external.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
We are a digital retailer that started with the goal of delivering a fully online service. The realities of operating in the energy market has caused us to shift to a more blended model, and the practicalities of dealing with recent high rates of growth have meant that we are not as digital as we would like. Unlike many CIOs, I do not have to convince the rest of the board that we are a digital brand. But given we have now reached a mature stage with respect to energy, we now have the opportunity and capacity to drive our digital ambitions much further.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
At First Utility we are very cautious with the partnerships we create as we recognise that investment both sides need to make in order for them to be successful. We have few strategic partners and only buy technology solutions in very specific instances, preferring instead open-source based solutions wherever practical. Of course, there are exceptions:

  • Group collaboration, calendaring, email: One of the best decisions we made was to shift from on-premise Office/Exchange to Google for Business. We still get new hires wanting to create their own individual Powerpoint, but it usually does not take long for them to realise the benefits of shared and collaborative, and the lack of attachment version hell that most businesses suffer. This is a seven-year-old decision but one that still gives us an advantage. (Google)
  • Shifting workloads to lower-cost infrastructures: We have reengineered part of our core systems to move data processing workloads off proprietary SQL databases to open source, No-SQL platforms. (DataStax)
  • Shift to a cloud-based, multichannel contact centre: This enables us to deliver more scalable and lower-cost contact management platforms (Serenova and Unify), and also enables a shift in contact volumes away from voice and email.
  • Cloud adoption: Decommissioning our own on premise datacentre and shifting to a combination of AWS, Google plus other rented DC capacity lowers our fixed costs and improves our resilience to any network link or access to any specific facility.
  • Created a flexible, high quality, engineering resource pool: Combining UK and Poland-based engineering teams with nearshore partners (Godel) allows us to flex resourcing to accommodate changing business needs.
  • UK smart metering: Worked with smaller vendors to ensure a viable competitive market was available to us for our longer-term benefit in terms of cost and risk. (Utiligroup, EDMI, Secure, GEO)

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
Our customers have high social and environmental standards and expect us to have the same. We are proud to be an accredited Living Wage employer, and to promote First Utility as a place where people are valued equally, can do their best work and fulfill their potential, including a target for 40% of senior roles are to be filled by women by 2020. As a board and executive team, we support the Powerful Women (PfW) initiative to encourage and promote more women into leadership positions in the UK’s energy sector. We are also proud to have one of our team nominated for this years Women in IT awards.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
First Utility ensures alignment of its technology functions to the key areas of business strategy primarily through our organisation structure. Within BTG we are organised into three line-of-business teams, supported by three functional, specialist groups.

The lines of business teams are:

  • Digital products: This group supports four delivery workstreams that support our chief marketing officer, her new product development teams and the business development and channel directors. They run weekly steering groups based on lean principles to ensure that the product roadmap delivers the most commercial value from the investments being made.
  • Customer service platform: A separate team supports our contact and service centre (or front-office) operations. Its goal for 2017 is to provide a unified, single desktop for our agents that allow them to serve all our customers across all products from a single environment, reducing staff training costs, error rates and average call handling times.
  • Core platform: This team supports the back-office systems from our smart meter investments and telco provisioning systems through to our billing and cash collection pipelines. This team supports the integration of new product domains (telco in 2016, more in 2017) and is responsible for the optimisation of our business processes to ensure we are as efficient as we can be.

The specialist support functions are:

  • Data and insights: Kept as a cross-cutting concern as the value of the data is only really released when you can combine/cross data from each of the business domains listed above.
  • Security: In 2016 we reached a scale where we deemed that the right choice was to have a specialist team for security and audit that was separate from the information technology operation teams.
  • Technical operations: This provides the foundation on which everything else is built, ensuring that we have a scalable, robust and resilient infrastructure that can maximise availability at the lowest possible sustainable cost to the business.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?

  • Implemented new data collaboration portal providing a single-stop shop for all of our data insights and related data products (Zoomdata).
  • Expanded security programme implemented advanced real-time threat detection and monitoring across our offices (Dark Trace).
  • Improved internal network controls (Palo Alto).
  • New cloud-based contact centre (Serenova).

What are your key strategic aims for next year?

  • Diversify the markets we serve and the product portfolio with which we serve them.
  • Continue to optimise the asset-light, low-cost supplier model while adapting it to support and expanded product portfolio beyond energy and telco.
  • Develop overseas market opportunities.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?

  • Likely increased volatility in wholesale markets and exchange rates that will impact input costs.
  • Likely flow through into consumer’s ‘wallet’, making price and value even more of a concern for the households we aim to serve.

When did you start your current role?
2009

What is your reporting line?
CEO

Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Yes

Are you a member of the board of directors?
Yes

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
Digital director – direct report; director dand insights – direct report.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
More than weekly

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
1,500

IT budget

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
£21m

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
40% run, 60% build/innovate.

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. CIO peers
  2. Industry bodies
  3. Analyst houses
  4. Media
  5. Consultants

IT security

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
No

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Yes

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Head of security – direct report.

First Utility IT department

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Yes

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Yes

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
No

How many employees are there in your IT team?
250

Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Yes

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • CRM
  • IoT
  • security
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • devices (mobile)
  • devices (desktop).

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • cloud
  • CRM
  • IoT
  • security
  • enterprise applications
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • devices (mobile).

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
Machine learning and blockchain.

The EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
No

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Yes

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?
Yes