The UK Retail energy sector is undergoing significant changes. There’s been a record number of new entrants to the market, from traditional oil and gas companies making mergers through to grassroots companies springing up that feel more like technology start-ups than energy suppliers.

As switching becomes easier and the choice of suppliers becomes larger, all energy providers will have to do more to differentiate their service from competitors. But with the Government introducing price caps and sustainable sources becoming an expected part of most energy tariffs, it's clear that price and sustainability alone will not be enough to create this necessary differentiation.

With the challenge of differentiation in mind, we embarked upon an in-depth analysis of the UK retail energy sector, speaking to industry partners and conducting our own primary research with a representative sample of UK energy consumers.

It became clear that a truly ‘smart service’ will be the next differentiator for energy companies looking to maintain a strong foothold in the market.

BUT WHAT IS A SMART SERVICE?

A smart service delivers a personalised, responsive and seamless experience for customers through the array of digital touchpoints that people use in their daily lives. From apps and websites to newer technologies like connected IoT devices, chatbots and voice interfaces, a Smart Service will help energy providers to create an enriching and positive impact on consumers’ lives.

In order to help UK energy retailers successfully differentiate themselves with a smart service, we have created a process specifically tailored to the unique needs of the energy sector. This process allows us to quickly understand what customers want from their utility provider’s apps, websites, voice interfaces and other digital touchpoints as well as how to quickly launch these products and services to market.

Simply explaining this process on its own would be boring. So, we decided to use this process to show you what we envisage a smart service to look like by designing a modern energy company from the ground up.

Introducing

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THE SHIFT FROM PRODUCTS TO SERVICES

Our mission with this project was to imagine Plug as a lifestyle brand - a company with a philosophy that people would be excited to endorse and share with their friends. In other words, a pretty big ask for a business operating in a sector that is traditionally seen as mundane and certainly not a topic to chit chat over at a dinner party!

In a world where consumers are seeking experiences over ownership, industries are necessarily becoming more service driven. This shift has already happened in other sectors, like finance, with new players like Monzo changing what customers expect from their banks. The energy sector is facing a similar set of challenges to the banks before them and they must find new ways to adapt or perish.

We attempted to imagine a world where one company had successfully taken the plunge and adapted to provide its customers with the smartest service on the market and so, Plug was born.

But who exactly are the people that Plug is aimed at?

A smart energy provider for smart people

Broadly speaking, we have drawn on three common consumer profiles for the UK retail energy market - you’ve got the ‘optimisers’, the ‘on demanders’ and the ‘greens’.

Whilst the concerns and demands of each group overlap there are some key traits that are held by each:

 

OPTIMISERS

Reduce my costs

They are interested in the data behind their energy consumption and in particular, how to reduce costs. This type of consumer is conscious of green issues and likely to be an early adopter of smart home technologies.

ON DEMANDERS

Make my life easier

They desire a light touch interaction with their energy provider. They want things to be as easy as possible. Simply put, their energy provider is the last thing they want to think about.

plug personas
GREENS

Help me live sustainably

They are very interested in sustainability issues and are willing to pay more for a service that can deliver a greener service and help to reduce their energy consumption.

Why a smart service works for all of our personas

The beauty of a smart service is that it is adaptable enough to be everything to everyone.

For optimisers, a smart service means a set of interconnected digital products working together to learn and adapt to their energy usage (via machine learning) in order to reduce energy consumption and ultimately, cost.

Smart can mean simple too - it's automated nature means no need for complicated setup and periodic requirements of effort. This suits the on demanders who just want things to work seamlessly and with little effort.

Whilst a smart service reduces cost for the optimisers, that very same algorithm can be set to optimise CO2 consumption instead, which is ideal for the Greens, who are particularly mindful of their impact on the environment and the implications for their children and their children’s children.

So how does all of this come to life as a real company?

 


INTRODUCING PLUG: MORE POWER CONNECTED

Plug helps you to connect. To your home. To your positive impact on the environment. To others around you.

We’re on a mission to make the most of a connected world. There are big savings to be made on price, CO2 emissions and your stress levels when you sign up to Plug.

We’re built as a connected energy company from the ground up. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a tech wizard to join us. In fact, we’ve designed all of our products to be incredibly easy to set up. You’ll be connected in no time, enjoying convenience and efficiency like never before.

BECOMING A CUSTOMER WITH PLUG

Understandably the prospect of switching providers conjures great apathy and indifference. The form filling, minimum terms and contractual voodoo is a lot to bear, especially when many consumers believe that each provider is more or less the same as the next.

We’ve sought inspiration from the retail sector to develop a human-like dialogue tool to extract the information we need to get a new customer started. Using readily available technologies, such as branch.io, the initial info gathered here is carried through into a seamless onboarding flow. The flow uses the info inputted by users to deliver an increasingly personalised experience from the first touch onwards.

GETTING SET UP WITH PLUG

Plug’s connected proposition is centred around making the most of the relevant devices in their home that can be connected to the internet.

However, we know that despite strong interest from consumers there are significant barriers. These include the complexity surrounding technical setup, unclear benefits and the low penetration of the necessary hardware devices.

So, when a new customer signs up to Plug, they will receive a beautifully boxed onboarding package containing the essential connected devices, including their Smart Energy Display (CAD), an Amazon Echo Dot (which acts as our seamless central interface) and an EcoIsMe monitoring sensor. With these devices, Plug customers will benefit from a highly connected and advanced service without any major installations required.

The package will also include a scannable code that gives users access to:

  1. An augmented reality tutorial on setting up their new devices and getting started with Plug
  2. If setup is still causing headaches, customers have an option to arrange a time have a ‘Plug Genius’ talk you through the installation of their new smart kit via a FaceTime style appointment (think Babylon Health)
  3. Option to arrange an in-person walkthrough for those who just prefer a good old face to face conversation

A seamless onboarding is essential for realising Plug’s vision. Studies in the US and our own extensive consumer research show that limited awareness of fantastic technology and the lack of technical competence are the biggest barriers to consumers taking advantage of the commercial and environmental gains to be made.


EVERYDAY SERVICES WITH PLUG

Plug - connected home

Our mission with this project was to ensure Plug offers true utility for consumers. It must make their lives easier, save them money and stand for something greater than the kWs consumed.

We are aware of some of the key consumer perceptions that stand in the way of greater adoption of smart meters and smart home technologies in general, though. That is, most consumers see the potential savings from a smart meter as being marginal (only up to £100 in the best case scenario), they are apathetic towards new technology and to top it all off, have an inherent distrust of energy suppliers with their data.

These barriers are by no means insurmountable. The Plug services outlined below are designed to allay such concerns by helping consumers to not only save but also make money as well as demonstrating exactly how Plug uses technology and the resulting data points to make beneficial suggestions and improvements rather than insidiously harvesting consumer data with little benefit in return.

Plug services are accessible via a myriad of touchpoints. Plug’s Smart App is the central interface, voice provides a frictionless controller for micro interactions and a handful of smart connected objects provide the data necessary to automate savings and provide the info required for Plug to make smarter choices for its customers.

These connected touchpoints put Plug at the centre of the home rather than an interchangeable utility. This alone is a massive shift from other UK energy retailers that are heavily commoditised.

As well as the obvious contenders such as an app that displays energy usage and the management of finances, Plug offers the following core services:

ENERGY ASSISTANT

Once upon a time, energy suppliers kept a low profile, avoiding interactions with customers for fear that they’d realise just how much they were spending. Smart Meters are changing that. However, providers must go further. Leveraging consumption data and working with startups like Manetos Smart Thermostat and BeeBryte, Plug will aim to learn behaviours and optimise accordingly. For instance, Plug may opt to charge your electric car at times of low demand that work with your routine or Plug may start warming your house an hour before you’re scheduled to arrive.

HOME CONTROL

Leveraging the brilliant startup Eco Is Me, Plug can monitor your home’s appliances and provide data on consumption and faults. Taking this further, Plug uses this information to recommend the best appliances to buy against your specific usage by linking directly to retail partners and showing you the exact savings you stand to make over a period of time. That new high-tech fridge might be £200 more than what you want to spend but what if Plug could show you that over 2 years, it could save you £300 in energy bills? A no brainer investment.

AUTOMATED HOME MANAGEMENT

Plug will continuously analyse the health of appliances and mission-critical hardware such as your fridge, washing machine, heating and boiler and so on in the background. Predictive analytics techniques will allow you to be alerted when something is at imminent risk of failure or in need of servicing. Plug appreciates that breakdowns and repairs are a big source of pain for consumers so the aim is to minimise frustration by not only highlighting the specific nature of the problem but also by suggesting accredited repair specialists who charge within market rates for their services (overcoming an information asymmetry that has burned many a consumer!).

CUSTOMER CARE

For many customers, dialling into the customer service team is the only point of ongoing contact, and unfortunately this is typically characterised by long waiting times, infuriating (and archaic!) hold music, recorded messages and being shifted from operator to operator.

Plug will leverage bot technology within the core app to handle the majority of queries. Natural Language Processing (NLP) has advanced significantly and the data we hold can instantly identify consumers and personalise the discussion.

Google’s Duplex demonstrates just how advanced AI and NLP is becoming. Should our Plug’s customer care bot face a particularly sticky situation, the bot will hand off to the ‘Plug Genius’ mentioned above.

This approach to customer care instantly makes Plug more convenient, more personal (somewhat ironically) and way ahead of the game without huge additional investment from today’s status quo.

SIMPLE WAYS IN

Plug services will be administered via a range of natural touchpoints. For instance, our Voice Assistant is a great interface to complete micro actions, such as adjusting the room temperature, asking after the current account balance or submitting a meter reading (pre-smart devices).

Our customer service chatbot will be available on the app, or via WhatsApp, the Plug website or Facebook. Alternatively, customers can choose to have a video call with a Plug Genius via the Echo Show, or Google Assistant’s Lenovo Smart Display or even ask questions via voice assistant. Plug customer service is never far away.

The app will serve as a control centre, connecting all the hardware devices into a central hub. It will display important data about usage, appliance monitoring, recommendations and much more. The important feature is that Plug touchpoints are designed to work across multiple devices. They must be so intuitive that they’re almost invisible.


THE PLUG HOME AS A PRODUCTIVE ENERGY HUBPlug house

Plug envisions that in the near future, the home will be a productive energy hub that consumes and produces energy. Advanced Plug customers can benefit from this future with a handful of advanced technologies described below. Some of these technologies are cost prohibitive for your average consumer, but what if Plug fronted the cost of installation and customers simply pay off the hardware via income generated from these very technologies? It’s a win/win for both parties.

MAKING POWER

Starting with the obvious, Solarus PowerCollector™ is a hybrid solar panel that produces both heat and electricity at the same time. It has the highest yield ever measured for a solar panel. Advanced Plug customers can have panels installed, and start generating their own green energy. Unused energy is either stored or pushed back into the grid.

STORING POWER

Green energy wastage has always been a limitation. However, incredible solutions have been developed over the past few years - the current pinnacle of battery technology for the home is the brilliant Kreisel Battery System. Kreisel is a powerful lithium ion battery system that is well designed, space efficient and highly effective.

With the Kreisel Battery solution at home, Plug customers enjoy significant benefits such as being able to store the energy drawn from the solar panels that they can then use throughout the day. Should the energy produced from solar be insufficient, customers can draw power from the grid at low demand periods to use during peak demand periods, saving money and solving demand issues.

CLEVER MANAGEMENT

Better still, Plug’s system of solar and home batteries will automatically manage the constant flux of storing and drawing power, by using start up BeeBryte to transform the battery into an intelligent device that continuously optimises the cost of power.

Plug is connected in every sense of the word. As a Plug customer, you’ll get access to an ecosystem of digital products that help to maintain equilibrium in the household whilst saving money and reducing your environmental impact.


PLUG AND THE ELECTRIC VEHICLE REVOLUTION

Plug electric vehicle

Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly mainstream. Innovators like Tesla have paved the way and many bigger manufacturers are following suit. However, charging station availability is a problem and one that will only worsen, as more and more vehicles hit the market.

Plug customers can choose to be part of a new and unique solution to the problem. Customers will have the option to have a charging station installed in their driveway.

Taking this further, customers can rent out their charging station for others to charge their electric vehicle. The system could be managed via a simple utility for the home owners, which allows them to allocate and manage available slots at their convenience. A portion of the money generated from vehicle charging goes into Plug customer’s pockets (or initially towards paying off the hardware).

Plug homes as a connected eco-system of charging points would be a perfect enabler for the electric vehicle revolution (appeasing those who have strong feelings against the continued use of petrol and diesel vehicles) and has the added bonus of generating passive income for Plug customers.

 

Wrapping up

Letting go of the status quo and feeling free enough to do something different is a liberating experience. We know that in reality there are technical constraints and business realities that can limit what’s possible.

In carrying out this exercise, we wanted to explore a smart and connected service as a central offering for UK retail energy market and hopefully inspire those in the energy sector to break the mould.

Of course, we know that getting Plug off the ground in the real world would take a lot more than a shiny new app, a few connected devices and a chatbot.

However, the central theme is consistent. The energy company of the future will be a connected lifestyle business. It will use connected hardware and immense data to create an ecosystem that removes frustration and caters for customers’ personal preferences and behaviour.

Hi Mum! Said Dad work with both incumbents and new energy startups to define and build a new future. Get in touch if you'd like to hear more.