Guest Column | August 30, 2019

The Digital Flip: How Innovation Is Transforming Utility Management

By Emrah Ercan


The digital ecosystem continues to evolve, bringing more brainpower to “smart” technologies — and more efficient water treatment operations and asset management to utilities.

The birth of digitization and data science has resulted in advancements throughout the world in areas such as biotechnology, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Today, more than ever, water treatment operators across the world are turning to digital solutions to transform their day-to-day business outcomes.

Water-intensive industries — like refining, chemical processing, and food and beverage — have historically engaged with solutions providers on an as-needed basis, with interactions driven by specific requests. As these industries adopt digital solutions, these relationships are becoming integrated and connected, propelling solutions providers to move from a supply and demand business model to one offering continuous interaction based on digital services.

The latest digital technologies are not just helping industry become more efficient and effective; digital technologies are transforming the way the water industry creates and captures value. Therefore, it is imperative that companies strengthen their core competencies with an eye on the future and understand how the digital journey will ultimately transform the relationship between customers and solutions providers.

Given the broad range of digital maturity among water treatment customers, it is critical to know and accept that solutions providers are becoming the expert guides along the customer’s digital journey. In Connected Strategy, authors Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch outline three phases of the customer journey: (1) recognizing the need, (2) requesting the desired option, and (3) responding and providing the desired options.

Historically, these phases of recognize, request, and respond were built without the digital element, placing the onus on the customer to drive them. However, by adding digital into the equation, the relationship is flipped, with the solutions provider now driving the digital experience.

Recognizing The Need

In a supply and demand business model, customers take inventory of their needs and decide what they require and when to purchase it, leaving the research and ordering in their own hands. And while digital has enabled online search, with customers conducting an average of 12 searches before making a purchase decision, the real paradigm shift will take hold as cloud-based monitoring tools become prevalent and invite data science to drive decisions.

The digital journey will bring different tools, goals, and outcomes for those within the water industry. Though it starts with small, incremental steps, not all customers work at the same pace, nor are they at the same point in their journey. Solutions providers must recognize this and adjust accordingly. Some technicians tasked with maintaining filters at a municipal wastewater plant might be happy to learn that online ordering is available, while others may be ready for digital monitoring that alerts the technicians when it’s time to order new filters. The most advanced monitoring systems will simply order supplies without waiting for the approval of a human.

With increased connectivity through digital technologies, water treatment companies can offer asset and operation performance assistance. To achieve this, solutions providers are looking to digitize their institutional knowledge and package and distribute this intelligence to customers around the globe in the form of digital tools like Asset Performance Management (APM) solutions and customized analytics.

Requesting The Order

Traditional purchase and work orders may still have their place in ordering technology and services, especially in a world where custom designs are essential to meeting unique customer needs. However, there are digitally enabled options that can get customers what they need on time and within budget.

Just as online ordering has become ingrained into our personal lives, it is also becoming a welcome change for ordering equipment and chemistries. And, while e-commerce is known to anyone who’s ever opened a web browser, only a handful of solutions providers offer this personalized “Amazon-like” experience to their customers.

E-commerce tools can help clients place orders more quickly and efficiently than traditional channels, yet the set of available options can be overwhelming. Creating a tailored menu of options and making personalized recommendations through e-commerce channels can help cut through the noise and foster closer relationships between solutions providers and customers. These fast and efficient responses to customers’ needs and the development of curated offerings are all enabled by digital technologies.

Much as APM solutions can help to recognize a need, the digital ecosystem has created a space where cloud-based digital tools give us the ability to view information in real time, enabling proactive responses to problems and supporting better decision-making on assets and operational processes. As such, APM platforms are quickly becoming a go-to tool when ordering critical items.

And while many solutions providers offer an APM platform that is designed to digitally monitor, analyze, and report on assets and operations, only the more sophisticated APM platforms can fully integrate with other enterprise systems for further automation.

Responding And Providing

The sales cycle is also evolving. Gone are the days of a simple buy and deliver approach. Customers want value-added services, including maintenance contracts and spare part replacement options. As customers become savvier, the value-added expectations are growing to include digital solutions, ultimately creating a circular relationship between the customer and the solutions provider.

In helping customers achieve their desired goals, solutions providers foster lasting relationships and build trust, directly affecting the customer’s digital journey. As a trusted partner, they are more likely to get customer buy-in to fully automate processes and enable predictive decision-making — like determining the optimal time to replace a membrane before fouling occurs or remotely adjusting a chemical pump to optimize a chemical treatment.

These closer relationships with customers are driving new business models in which they deploy and operate technology, leveraging knowledge across a number of disciplines to bring stability to areas of a business that were once highly variable for a customer. Ultimately, the companies that can master this complex value proposition will emerge as leaders within the industry.

A Connected Strategy

As digital transformations continue and customers push for more digital intelligence, machine learning will become the new norm, while repeat actions and requests will allow predictability and automation to drive business outcomes. The more data a solutions provider can collect, and the digital ecosystem can learn, the more often they will be able to predict and customize solutions as well as better invest in and improve their portfolio of offerings for future industry needs.

Think of a mechanism that, when a customer orders a technology like a reverse osmosis membrane, will automatically trigger them to consider a specific inhibitor chemistry based on the order and the known water makeup. Or how allowing an enterprise-wide view of how services are used at customer sites can focus a solutions provider’s product management teams to better invest in and modify the portfolio based on customer intelligence.

This type of fully automated and cyclical process results in a connected strategy that can reduce or eliminate friction between solutions providers and their customers. It also provides an opportunity for the solutions provider to collect data and learn from it. Additionally, the industry as a whole will benefit from:

  1. Transparent and unified customer experiences across the board.
  2. Improved “tailored/customized solutions” based on past interactions and data shared between customers and providers.
  3. Enhanced products and service offerings based on fleet-level learning.

Each of these builds on the other and creates trusted and connected partners committed to customer outcomes.

The Digital Future

As digital capabilities move from “nice to have” to “must-have,” they create opportunities as well as challenges on both sides, especially at large multinationals interested in meeting environmental and operational expectations.

This is why partnerships have been, and will continue to be, of such value within the industry. Solutions providers that can harness their digital technologies to build trust and strengthen customer relationships are positioning themselves for long-term success. The future is bright — as long as we work together.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

About The Author

Emrah Ercan serves as global director of digital solutions at SUEZ — Water Technologies & Solutions and is a member of the company’s innovation and digital board of directors. In his current role, Ercan is responsible for strategic direction, commercialization, and development of the company’s digital solutions. Previously, he served as VP of strategic initiatives at GE Oil & Gas and GE Digital, where he established an internal incubator to fund early-stage digital oilfield ideas. Ercan holds an MBA from the University of Southern California, a Master of Science in industrial engineering from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, and a Bachelor of Science in chemical and process engineering from Bogazici University in Turkey.

SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions