NIE Networks’ Customer and Market Services Director, Ronan McKeown, discusses the organisation’s customer-centred approach to the renewable energy transition, and the launch of a new Vulnerable Customer Strategy to ensure the needs of every customer are met along the way.
Appointed to the role of Customer and Market Services Director for NIE Networks in early 2020, McKeown explains that his broad remit encompasses all customer-facing facets of the business, ranging from the organisation’s call handling functions through to connections and all aspects of metering.
NIE Networks’ customer base is unique in that it includes almost every home, business and farm in Northern Ireland. As the owner of the electricity transmission and distribution network, the organisation is responsible for transporting electricity to over 895,000 customers.
“I see my role as bringing the thread of excellent customer service standards across all aspects of our business to ensure a consistent approach to all customers, regardless of their individual needs or the service we are providing to them,” he states.
As the youngest ever member of the NIE Networks’ Executive Management team, the chartered electrical engineer is well aware that both the role of the customer and the shape of customer service are changing, particularly in relation to energy.
Describing an existing strong customer service ethos within NIE Networks, with all of the company’s 1,200 directly employed staff committed to delivering high levels of service, McKeown points to a shift away from the traditional passive relationship most customers had with NIE Networks.
“We are now moving into an era where customers will manage their own energy needs to a much greater extent and will be using the network to facilitate, not just how they control their electricity supply coming into their homes, but also how they control their heat and transport,” he says.
“The needs of every customer will heighten as we move into a low carbon future. We are seeing a rise in the prosumer, customers who both consume and generate power, and we need to ensure we are meeting the expectations of that demand with our levels of service.”
Latest figures show that 47 per cent of the total annual electricity consumption in Northern Ireland for the 12 months to September 2020 is being generated from renewable sources. NIE Networks has played a critical role in enabling Northern Ireland reach that milestone by providing the network connections for the renewable sources and investing almost £400 million in the network to facilitate generation.
“We are seeing a rise in the prosumer, customers who both consume and generate power, and we need to ensure we are meeting the expectations of that demand with our levels of service.”
“NIE Networks has led the way in connecting renewable generation to its network with over 20,000 customers in Northern Ireland now generating energy from renewable sources. That is a significant shift from the historic position of having three main centralised power stations,” McKeown adds.
The Director believes enhanced digital capability within the organisation will aid with meeting increased demand over the next decade and beyond. NIE Networks recently created a new post of Digital Transformation Manager, which McKeown believes is evidence of a recognition by the organisation of how the customer experience is set to change.
The 24/7 NIE Networks Customer Helpline currently processes in excess of 20,000 calls per month and McKeown points to a greater focus on self-service within the organisation’s new digital strategy, which is currently being developed.
“We have a lot of systems already in place and one of the next steps for us will be how we can share that data with customers, enabling them to make smarter choices about how they use and potentially generate power,” he says.
“Given that the volume of customer interaction is set to increase, we recognise too that self-service platforms can, for our more active customers, play a critical role in advancing our existing customer relations.”
McKeown insists that alongside the energy transition, the Covid-19 pandemic has also shaped how NIE Networks views its future interactions with customers.
Asked how the past year-and-a-half has altered the relationship he says: “A major recognition for us over the year is that home demand has evolved beyond what we historically knew or ever expected in such a short timeframe. Homes are now schools, offices, work out spaces and much more and as a result, the expectation of network resilience from customers has increased.
“We are building that resilience learning into our next price control business plan which will take us to the key renewable milestone of 2030 and will be transformational in its nature,” he states.
Offering further analysis, the Customer and Market Services Director says that there have been two sides to how the pandemic has shaped customer interaction. On one hand, NIE Networks has had to carefully manage customer expectations and understanding about outages needed to maintain network integrity, as many people worked from home.
On the other hand, the organisation has also been able to increase the levels of positive interactions with customers. During the initial lockdown, NIE Networks utilised staff resources to call customers on their medical customer care register, which McKeown describes as a “positive experience” for all and one which allowed them to look after the most vulnerable.
McKeown believes that the pandemic’s impact accelerated the launch of the company’s Vulnerable Customer Strategy in June 2021.
The detailed nine-point plan outlines how the organisation will both identify and provide the best possible support to its most vulnerable customers, ensuring every customer receives the help they need, when they need it.
The strategy defines how support will be increased to those domestic customers who are dependent on life-saving medical equipment or those who are identified as needing extra support due to their personal needs and circumstances.
“We are proud of the great service our employees provide to ensure the most vulnerable in society are cared for as customers of NIE Networks, but we always want to improve,” explains McKeown.
“As a business, our customers, and particularly vulnerable customers, sit at the heart of everything we do and every decision we make. We are an accredited JAM Card friendly organisation, with over 90 per cent of our staff now trained to provide the highest standard of service to those customers with a learning difficulty, autism or communication barrier.”
Over 10,000 people are currently registered on the NIE Networks Medical Customer Care Register, which offers a telephone information support service to customers who are dependent on life supporting medical equipment in the event of a power cut or planned interruption to supply.
McKeown says that he hopes the strategy will serve to increase awareness of the services NIE Networks offers for vulnerable customers and outlines his ambition to increase the number of customers on the register.
“Providing a good service for everyone does not always mean providing the same service for everyone. Each year we invest around £0.5 million on support services specifically for more vulnerable customers and there are over 20 tailored ways that we offer help and support to those customers,” he adds.
The strategy outlines a goal to increase the number of customers on the register by 25 per cent by 2024 and includes a range of other initiatives, not least, a goal to create a new set of skills for contact with vulnerable customers, meaning customers will be able to choose to speak to specially trained agents.
McKeown adds: “Our strategy also recognises that there is now a need for a broader definition of vulnerability and that it should not solely be centred on those dependent on medical equipment. We recognise that there is a wide range of people that we need to be tailoring our services to and we’re working with our counterparts in other utilities and suppliers in the electricity industry to develop the best service standards we can.”
Quizzed on what success of the strategy might look like in the coming years, McKeown says: “For me this strategy is a step towards where we need to get to. We are conscious of the Best Practice Framework consultation being led by the Utility Regulator, but we are not waiting for this to conclude. Instead, we are acting to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all of our customers and will continue to develop our services in line with any requirements borne out of this consultation.
“We are a dementia friendly organisation, we offer translation services for those customers who do not use English as their first language, we have browse aloud on our website for those with visual impairment and our metering team can arrange an appointment for those customers who need to be accompanied by a friend or family member.
“For me, success looks like the majority of people in Northern Ireland being aware of the services that we provide and NIE Networks having the systems, training and skills to meet different needs, to recognise different vulnerabilities and also to have a better understanding of the transient nature of vulnerability as well.
“Our strategy also recognises that there is now a need for a broader definition of vulnerability and that it should not solely be centred on those dependent on medical equipment.”
“It’s about so much more than what some may perceive vulnerability to be. Those with additional communication needs, translation requirements, the elderly, those who are visually impaired or those reliant on life saving medical equipment, all need our support in different ways. We want every customer to feel seen and valued no matter what the reason they come in contact with us.
“Part of my role is to ensure that those considerations are factored into our whole organisation and ensuring that decisions are being taken with every customer in mind. As we go through the energy transition, we must ensure that it is a fair and just transition and that we don’t leave any customer behind.”
The Director is cognisant of the fact that as well as adapting to meet changing customer demand, NIE Networks also has a role in influencing customer behaviours. NIE Networks invests over £100 million annually in maintaining and upgrading the electricity transmission and distribution network to ensure it remains in a safe and reliable condition, however, it is recognised that significant infrastructure investment will be required if an ambition of net-zero carbon is to be achieved.
McKeown recognises that resources are not unlimited and the future network will require a different approach to traditional methods.
“One of our big challenges is that a lot of current activity is happening on the low voltage network. If we are going to make this all work, we need to get better in terms of the visibility of what is happening on that network,” he says.
“We have a lot of control and visibility of the high voltage network and the next step is to transcend that down to the low voltage network. Things like smart meters would help bring that granularity.
“We recognise that simply putting additional copper in the ground isn’t necessarily the right way to go because if we can get customers to change their behaviours and play an active part, then we can mitigate a lot of that investment.
“We want to ensure we find a way for customers to participate in the market and, while we can’t get away from a need for infrastructure investment, if there is a smarter way to invest, we want to ensure it is part of our toolkit when making decisions.”
NIE Networks’ economic contribution is significant, and the organisation stands ready to play a pivotal role in Northern Ireland’s economic recovery. The organisation contributes some £150 million to the local economy through employment, taxes and supplier contributions on an annual basis and provides hundreds of jobs through its contract and supply chain, on top of the 1,200 highly skilled individuals NIE Networks employs directly.
In April 2021, NIE Networks launched its Networks for Net Zero strategy, setting out the organisation’s pathway to net zero carbon and the role it will play in the economic recovery, for which the Department for the Economy has identified clean energy as major area of potential growth.
The strategy identifies eight key areas that could hasten the journey to net zero and simultaneously release economic potential including joined up policy and regulations, improved planning processes and energy efficient building regulations.
Describing how NIE Networks is analysing best practice on connecting renewables and new technologies, McKeown adds: “We are looking at the way we planned the network in the past and how our approach to the future is very different. The use of data to predict where some of this technology is going to arrive will enable us to invest ahead of time.”
McKeown believes that building on existing innovations in low carbon energy through increased government investment in things like smart metering, energy storage and heat pumps, will be transformational.
“We have a really exciting opportunity to develop skills and local knowledge and ultimately create jobs, some of which are roles of the future and don’t exist yet,” he states. “NIE Networks also has a role in acting as a trusted advisor to many businesses through the energy transition. All of this works to benefit the customer in that it encourages the adoption of new technologies amongst consumers and ensures customers save money in the long-term.
“Ultimately, we will be a leader in helping Northern Ireland reach the net-zero goals of the future, all while bringing every customer on that journey and ensuring no customer is left behind,” he concludes.
Profile: Ronan McKeown
The chartered electrical engineer has worked in the electricity industry for 16 years and joined NIE Networks in 2005, holding a number of positions including Head of Asset Management and Investment Strategy Manager. Prior to working for NIE Networks he worked for Scottish Power and lived in Australia for a time working as a senior engineering consultant. On his return to Northern Ireland, he served as an electricity analyst at the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator.