In the UK most people don’t change energy suppliers or tariffs even though they could save more than £200 annually on average by doing so, according to the Competition and Markets Authority. The process is cumbersome and they fear that, like changing lanes on a congested motorway, the tariff picture will soon change and they’ll end up losing out once again. Better the devil you know.
The situation in New Zealand is similar. In spite of the arrival of price comparison sites, the onus is still on the customer to monitor the complex and shifting landscape of tariffs and switching can be hard work.
“The customer still very much at the end of the value chain having to abide by the rules of the incumbent,” says Tim Rudkin, CEO of New Zealand utilities brokerage and consultancy Saveawatt. There are a number of “friction points” that need to be removed, he says:
“Don’t ask me to calculate how much energy I use; don’t make me fill out forms; don’t ask the same questions time after time; and don’t ask me to set up payment authorities time and time again.”
What if you had a personal assistant to keep an eye on the marketplace and do all that form-filling for you? That’s what Saveawatt has implemented in New Zealand in collaboration with personal information management (PIM) start-up MyWave.
MyWave offers a virtual personal assistant called Frank (a name chosen because it means “honest and free” according to CEO Geraldine McBride). A little like Siri, Cortana or Ask Google, Frank uses what he knows about you to make suggestions on your behalf. Unlike those data-harvesting virtual PAs though, Frank (main picture) does not share the user’s information with any third party without their explicit approval. He’s built on the principles of privacy by design.
MyWave is one of a growing number of companies driving the nascent personal information economy, in which the value of an individual’s personal data accrues to that individual.
McBride, a former CEO and president at SAP who set up MyWave in New Zealand three years ago, describes the approach as “customer-managed relationships” or CMR, contrasting that with one of her old employers’ mainstays: CRM.
“CRM is the old push model of the industrial revolution,” she tells Computing. “CMR is about enabling the consumer to get what they want from the enterprise brand, so you end up with push and pull working in concert with each other. It’s a dance of mutual value.”
How does this dance play out with domestic energy supply? As the customer you take the lead. You tell Frank the sort of tariff you want – fixed-term or flexible, renewable energy, payment method – and the PA monitors the offerings of participating energy retailers in real-time. When a retailer offers a better deal you are informed, and because MyWave hosts all your relevant data (bank details, address, preferences), changing tariff or supplier is a matter of a few taps on a smartphone.
“The customer might say I’m totally averse to a fixed term contract. That’s fine. Frank won’t set them up a fixed term contract. But we can also come back in six months time and say ‘do you realise you missed six deals for a better plan? Would you now like to change your profile?’,” explains Durkin. “You basically authorise Frank to manage your power for you.”
A race to the bottom?
The Saveawatt scheme is free to use for consumers, but suppliers need to pay. According to Durkin more than half of New Zealand’s 27 energy retailers are already “in the process of signing up”.
“A lot of retailers were terrified of us when we first spoke to them,” he says. “They thought it was a race to the bottom.”
Instead, he says, they have come to realise they can save money by improving the targeting and retention of customers.
“A retailer can come to the platform and say ‘I want 1,000 customers in this particular region that consume this volume of power and pay by direct debit’.
“We say that’s fine. Tell us the price for that and if that price matches the preferences of the customer and is the best for them you’ve got them instantly right there. No door-knocking, no TV advertisements. We provide a much more efficient cost of sale for them.”
Retailers are also able to make a better offer to customers who may be about to switch, he says.
The scheme has got off to a promising start in New Zealand, although it is still early days. Durkin and McBride insist that the country is a microcosm of the UK and US markets and a UK launch is scheduled for next year. Britain is a much larger market than New Zealand, however, with tariffs regulated to a greater extent; it remains to be seen how many parallels there really are and whether a critical mass of energy retailers will be willing to sign up.
Succeed or not, though, there is little doubt that the personal information economy is starting to take off in a number of different areas, be that finance, government or retail.
“It’s linking willing sellers and willing buyers. We put the customer at the centre of that relationship,” says McBride.
This article is one in a series of pieces about privacy engineering collected under the tag Privacy by Design.