Severn Trent signals future by hiring a chief customer officer with IT oversight

Severn Trent is not a name that would spring to mind when thinking about trail blazing brands but the water supplier has just appointed a senior marketer with responsibilities that reflect two of the biggest trends in marketing.

Severn trent Water

Sarah Bentley has been hired as the company’s first chief customer officer with a remit for customer care and business transformation. Where the former Accenture and BT marketer’s role is less traditional, however, is that it also carries with it ultimate oversight of IT.

In 2012, Gartner declared that marketing was now the fundamental driver of IT purchasing and predicted that by 2017, CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs – the theory being marketing is becoming more technology and data-driven.

Bentley told Marketing Week that her new employer’s decision to hand her oversight of technology reflects this change but also how technology has empowered customers.

“Customers are driving the agenda, armed with more information, a stronger voice and many more ways of contacting us – increasingly through digital channels.  IT has traditionally served the needs of a manufacturing, asset centric business, rather than the customer.

She adds there is now another “lens on our business”.

“Seen through this customer lens, we need to change our technology to keep pace with customer behaviour and expectations, and build systems and applications that make our business more proactive, simple and relevant,” she says.

The chief customer officer role is also becoming more prevalent, particularly in retail. Asda’s top marketer Steve Smith is its CCO, while Tesco created a CCO role earlier this year that was first occupied by Jill Easterbrook and now by Robin Terrell, who has responsibility for both multichannel and marketing.

Bentley suggests digital is again the driver of the CCO trend.

“In a digital world, expectations of how we run our business internally and externally have changed.

“Responding quickly to changing customer expectations and the rapid adoption of digital technologies like aps and social media requires companies to re-think their traditional operating models, including their approach to technology.  This can’t be done in a piecemeal way – customer care, technology and transformation are now inextricably linked.”

Water companies have not suffered from the same levels of disdain that the other former public utilities have in recent years. YouGov BrandIndex data shows all the major water suppliers sitting well ahead of the big 6 energy suppliers on key brand health measures. There is no evidence that Severn Trent and its rivals, all monopolies, are loved brands, however.

Its Index score – an average of key measures such as quality, satisfaction and value – is positive (1.5, putting it 12th in a list of 35 utilities) behind just Yorkshire Water (3, 8th) and Anglian Water (2.2, 11th) but well behind the top two in the utility category Post Office (31.7) and Royal Mail (25.4).

Industry regulator OFWAT introduced the Service Incentive Mechanism in 2010, an attempt to “challenge monopoly companies to improve” service by rating and ranking them on the basis of satisfaction at various customer contact points. The naming and occasionally shaming is aimed at encouraging suppliers to “find their own solutions to meeting customers’ expectations”.

The regulator is also responsible for setting the pricing framework, recently announcing changes that would drive prices down by an average 5% in England and Wales by 2020.

Against this regulatory backdrop, service excellence is paramount to differentiation, according to Bentley.

“Our new CEO Liv Garfield is driving a cultural change at Severn Trent, with a clear ambition to put the customer at the heart of what we do.  My role is to ensure that, as a business, we are organised around the customer.  Our regulatory world is also changing.

“We now have 27 financial incentives to out-perform our customer service targets, so customer focus is no longer a discretionary activity for water companies, it’s a key driver of growth.”

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