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13 December 2019

Centrica turns to Google to cut truck-roll costs, squeezes Hive

Centrica’s UK energy subsidiary British Gas has turned to Google’s voice-assistant technology in the hope of dramatically cutting its costs – using Google Assistant to provide boiler outage troubleshooting services to its customers. This is despite the fact that Google’s Nest product line sits in direct competition with another of Centrica’s subsidiaries – the smart home platform Hive.

The issue for Centrica is that Google and Amazon voice assistants are so widespread now that competitors in the smart home sector are somewhat forced to bend the knee – as trying to create an alternative is expensive and impractical. Aligning with the incumbent voice platforms gives British Gas a quick victory, whereas trying to bring an in-house assistant to market would provide quite a poor use experience.

Around 1 in 5 British households contain a smart speaker, with Amazon thought to have a larger share than Google. Now, those homes with Google speakers, or smartphone users with access to Assistant, can query the service using natural language inputs. By incorporating voice-assistants into its servicing capabilities, the utility hopes to reduce maintenance truck rolls.

For some context, British Gas attended 1.3 million callouts last winter, each costing somewhere around £100 in business costs, if you factor in fuel, labor maintenance materials. This means those calls cost it £130 million in the quarter. If British Gas can reduce that by just 10%, that gives it a £13 million saving, which of course is far higher than the cost of developing the necessary skills for the voice-assistant app. Those are likely conservative estimates for costs too.

In terms of the user experience, the customer simply asks either a Google smartphone app or Google Nest, “Ok Google, talk to boiler support.” However, at present the integration can only help with fairly basic problems, and if the support call is not resolved it can escalate to help desk staff.

British Gas admits “it won’t ask you to do anything tricky.” In fact, all responses are taken directly from the user manual. This will at least cut the irritating instances of callouts which end in “no fault found.” The new skill is an upgrade from robotic and pre-prescribed voice-enabled phone options offered in the smart home market. At present many smart home voice assistant integrations with utility systems simply list basic account information such as billing details and energy usage.

Skills with more utility such as troubleshooting will likely prove popular with consumers.  This does bring into question how far smart-home hardware manufacturers can progress without partnering Amazon and Google on their voice assistants.

As for Amazon, Italian energy company Enel announced that its smart-home hub, Homix, has Alexa services integrated. Homix users can now control smart-home variables such as heating, lighting and security using the Amazon voice assistant.  In October, Alexa partnered with Paymentus to allow its customers to pay and manage their bills via an Alexa-enabled device. Founded in 2004, Paymentus provide companies with a billing and payments platform.

Similarly, a recent EDF skill for Alexa only offers very basic information updates. The skill can tell you your account balance, tariff end date, and when your bills are due, as well as perform meter readings, but currently, these systems don’t seem to have as clear cut a benefit for the energy provider – such as those seen with British Gas’ troubleshooting.

The utility sector should look to the healthcare industry for inspiration. In July, the UK’s Department of Health announced that NHS health information and advice would be made available through Alexa. This is to reduce the pressure on health professionals who often find themselves using precious time to offer easily accessible advice for common illnesses. As shown by British Gas and the NHS, voice-assistants are an increasingly popular choice for operational cost saving.

Aside from Voice Assistants, Google seems to be infiltrating utility markets adequately with Nest anyway. This July saw Leap, a California-based energy exchange firm, partner with Nest so that its thermostats could be utilized for demand response capacity on the Leap Exchange. Aside from allowing Leap to sell Nest users’ power to the grid, Google gets more Nest users, as Leap offers the smart-home hubs free with enrollment.