An In-Depth Interview with Bobby Batson

Like many traditional industries, the utility industry tends to be a follower in terms of technology trends and deployment of modern applications and tools. While cloud computing is ubiquitous and is the prevailing business model in some newer industries, the movement to the cloud has, in some senses, just begun in the utility industry. 

Even though core enterprise applications have only recently been offered in a cloud or software-as-a-service model, this trend is accelerating and will be a dominant theme underlying all IT decisions moving forward. That's why we sat down with Chief Operating Officer, Bobby Batson for this in-depth interview about how utilities can utilize technology advancements to power their organization.

The future of utilities includes a focus on innovation and enhanced customer service. What advice can you give utility managers wishing to become cutting-edge organizations?
There are two aspects that need to be taken into account and analyzed: 1) are your business processes defined and, if so, are they straightforward and optimized and 2) how sophisticated are your IT systems in terms of allowing for optimized and automated business processes. 
Next, I would ensure you have defined the business processes and communications that are most prevalent within your customer base. Once these are understood, you can look to automate those business processes and communications that would be most impactful in either improving the customer experience and/or lowering operating costs. The business processes ripe for automation may differ significantly for a given utility depending on the technological sophistication and enterprise application footprint and maturity of the utility.
I would then examine the effort and complexity involved in automating those high-value business processes in order to gauge the "bang for your buck". As an example, many customer inquiries relate to their bill charges and monthly usage. Providing additional insights into the bill calculation  and commodity usage can be as simple as building a generic "bill explainer" webpage -  a website update that is relatively inexpensive and yet, impactful. Conversely, the utility bill itself may be confusing or does not provide the level of detail needed to satisfy a typical customer. So a bill redesign may be deemed impactful, yet the effort and cost of such an effort may be prohibitive. 
According to Deloitte's 2022 Industry Outlook, the energy industry will continue to advance decarbonization, digitization, and decentralization. What aspects of the "3D Transformation" should utility managers pay close attention to in the next few years?
Utilities of all types are facing challenges related to environmental concerns. Decarbonization pressures are impacting both the electric and gas industries while water scarcity and recurring droughts are impacting many water utilities. Aging infrastructure, generally, in the utility industry is exacerbating these macro environmental issues, and we expect the related regulatory pressures to continue, if not increase. As such, it is imperative for utilities to continue to "digitize" both their operational and information technologies in order to build a foundation that will allow utilities to respond quickly to events on the ground. Examples include technology deployments in the electric industry to identify problematic areas of the grid that are susceptible to wildfires, or data analysis in water and gas utilities to identify non-revenue commodity loss. 
Decentralization is primarily as facet of the electric industry which is being driven by a range of related developments including distributed renewable power sources, battery storage, microgrids and community solar, among others. In a sense, this is back-to-the-future for the electric industry where the original power grids were initially locally built and controlled, before the advent of distant interconnected gigawatt generating facilities. As this decentralization wave continues, the number of generating sources will explode vastly increasing the two-way flow of electricity and forcing utilities to update their transmission,  distribution and billing systems to accommodate the new world order.
According to Forbes, the utility industry is at the center of a global shift including the need to reimagine new ways to operate. What changes do you predict over the next few years around utilities designing new ways of operating to support customers, communities, society, the environment, and their stakeholders?
Historically speaking, most utilities in the United States were built and operated as a the sole provider for a given commodity (electric, water or gas). Utilities, in most parts of the country, are monopolies operating under a governmental regulatory body. A utility's mandate has historically been to reliably provide their commodities to their end use customer base -  and outside of that mandate, there was little concern for or emphasis on customer service and customer experiences.
As other consumer industries have increased their customer service focus, utilites have been forced to respond and keep-up. For many utilities, responding to these new customer needs has been forced and uneven at best -  there was not much recourse for the customer, so utility incentives for change were lacking. That is no longer the case as poor performing utilities can be bombarded from many sides whether that be regulators, politicians, the news media or social media. As such, modern utilities of all shapes and sizes must now proactively address customer service and community demands in order to maintain the sociatial trust needed to thrive in today's increasingly interconnected world.

In light of the pandemic, may utilities are shifting efforts to digital platforms to managing customer expectations. What advice do you have for the utilities who are not yet utilizing the latest platforms?
In this day and age, most consumers expect to interact with their local utility in the same ways they interact with other modern companies, which is increasingly digital (e.g. Amazon, Uber, etc). There is and will continue to be pressure on utilities to modernize their "old school" methods. The good news for laggard utilities is that modern cloud-based applications and technologies are, in many cases, much more lightweight and easier to deploy than traditional on-premises applications. And there are many more options and point solutions available to tackle low-hanging fruit -  customer portals are one example. These portals are typically easy to implement since they are not a system of record and can provide the bulk of information and capabilites (ex. usage history, bill presentment and payment) that take care of most consumers customer service needs. 


"Furthermore, as applications and data migrate to the cloud, there are increasing opportunities to utilize big data repositories and tools to analyze data in a manner that was not feasible in the past, which will uncover actionable insights that allow for increasing operational data-driven sophistication."


More About Bobby Batson

Bobby began his career as a software developer for an early customer information system (CIS). He served as COO and co-founded Five Point Partners, a 250-person professional services firm serving the utility industry. Ernst & Young purchased Five Point in 2014, and Bobby served as a partner overseeing EY's Oracle Utilities Application practice. Earlier in his career, Bobby was partner and CFO of Capstone Consulting Partners, a boutique consulting firm focused on the utilities industry that was acquired by Alliance Data Systems, a predecessor company to VertexOne.

Bobby has helped water, gas, and electric utilities navigate large transformation programs involving software systems. These systems include CIS, enterprise asset management (EAM), work and service management, and enterprise resource management (ERP). Bobby specializes in the use and deployment of cloud computing and other emerging technologies. Bobby has an electrical engineering degree from the University of Alabama and an MBA from Vanderbilt University. Bobby resides in Atlanta, GA.

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