Associate feature: how Business Stream is driving change in the UK water sector
When Jo Dow was asked to become part of a three-strong team to help establish a new retail subsidiary of Scottish Water, she could never have imagined that more than a decade later she would be chief executive of that company, which is now serving over 200,000 customers across the UK.
Business Stream was the first operator in the Scottish retail water market when it opened in 2008, allowing non-household customers to choose their supplier.
With Scotland being the first country in the world to go down this route, the company paved the way for a healthy competitive market, and now there are just under 30 licensed companies operating in the Scottish market.
It has since broken into the English market, having advocated for the UK Government’s plans to introduce a competitive retail water market south of the border, and has acquired Southern Water’s non-household customer base.
In October this year, it will also take over the non-household customer base of Yorkshire Water Business Services, making Business Stream one of the three largest water retailers in the UK.
“When I reflect back now on how the business has changed over the last 11 years, it’s been absolutely incredible,” says Dow, who has been chief executive of Business Stream for around five years. “We’ve been through some highs and lows along the way, as all businesses have, but we have ploughed a path that has helped us to grow the business significantly and position ourselves as one of the leading retailers in the market.”
Over the years the retailer has worked hard to drive change in the water sector and played an influential role in the development of the English retail water market, which opened in 2017.
Dow explains: “Having had years of experience of operating in a competitive water market in Scotland, we understood what customers wanted and the benefits that competition could deliver. We were keen for customers south of the border to reap similar benefits and as a result, became vocal advocates for competition to be introduced in England. We were asked to participate in the Open Water Working Groups, which were set up to design the market framework, and to sit on the Assurance Group, which provided advice to the Secretary of State prior to the market opening.
“We were very honest in the way we approached it – by calling on our experience of operating in the Scottish market, we were able to highlight the parts that were working really well and the other areas which could, with the benefit of hindsight, be improved. I think the key stakeholders appreciated that honesty and could see that we wanted to share our experience to help make the new market a success.”
Dow says that competition has delivered huge benefits to customers.
To date, it has helped its customers – which include Network Rail, Lloyds Banking Group, Regus Management (UK), Morrisons, Cancer Research UK and Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (the largest single public sector contract awarded this year) – save more than £242m through discounts and water and energy efficiency savings.
“The benefits that we’ve delivered for customers fall into three categories,” explains Dow. “The first is a discount on the price they pay for their water, which has delivered significant financial savings to customers.
“The second is improving the quality of the customer experience because there’s no doubt that you have to raise the bar, from a service perspective, when you’re operating in a competitive market to differentiate your offering and respond to changing customer expectations.
“And the third one, which is the one we’re most proud of, is around water efficiency. We’ve championed water efficiency with our customers and tried to encourage them to use water wisely, not only to help the environment but to save money too.”
Helping the environment is incredibly important to Business Stream – in the last 11 years it has saved its business and public sector customers more than 43 billion litres of water. But how exactly does it encourage its customers to get on board with water efficiency?
Dow explains: “Over the years we’ve done a number of different things to help our customers use less water and to build on that, we recently launched our water efficiency pledge, which is a commitment to help our customers reduce the amount of water they use by 20 per cent.
“We felt the need to put a stake in the ground to make that commitment, knowing that the average business in the UK uses 30 per cent more water than it needs to.
“We were also the first water retailer to partner with Waterwise, who are the leading NGO on water efficiency in the UK, to help promote the importance of water efficiency and conservation to retail customers and we are working with them on a number of other initiatives too.”
Dow adds that it is often the “simple steps” that can reduce water usage the most, such as making sure leaking taps are fixed and fitting water efficiency saving devices to taps, showers and toilets. The retailer also offers its customers a benchmarking tool that allows them to insert a few details online (type of business, size and number of employees) and then benchmark their water usage against other similar businesses to know how they are comparing.
“For those companies that are using above the average, we encourage them to give us a call so we can help them to understand their water usage and identify ways for them to use less,” Dow says.
Providing support to customers is one of the things Business Stream prides itself on, which is evident in the raft of awards it has received for customer experience.
In recent years, it has invested significantly in this area, including developing a fully automated onboarding system which has reduced the time it takes to onboard multi-site customers from 12 weeks to two weeks.
“Customers are used to interacting with lots of different suppliers and doing it all digitally, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and although we are dealing with business customers, we know that their expectations are shaped by their interactions as consumers of goods and services, which is why digital transformation has been a key focus for us,” Dow explains.
But it’s not just its customers that Business Stream takes great care of – it’s the 400 people it employs, too.
To prove its commitment to its staff and communities, Business Stream is in the process of launching its Making a Positive Difference vision, which features a number of initiatives including an employee volunteering programme, a charity panel, expanding its Modern Apprenticeship scheme and a range of activities to help support employees’ health and wellbeing.
“It was in response to feedback that we got in our annual employee engagement survey,” Dow explains. “Our employees said that while they understood the goals and targets for the business, they wanted to know how we were giving back to society.
“And that’s what sparked Making a Positive Difference. It’s about doing the right thing for our customers, our people, the environment and the communities that we operate within – and as a responsible business, we are passionate about driving this vision forward.”