Top use cases for electronic agreements in the utilities industry

utilities industries using digital agreements

By Charlie Cowan - Strategic Enterprise AE at DocuSign

Every industry is different and has a collection of their own unique processes to create, deliver and support their specific product or service.  

Almost every one of those processes requires some form of agreement and signature to get from one end to another.

In this blog post, I’ll dive into utility companies and the most common and highest value agreement use cases that we see when we speak to clients.

Defining a utility

By a utility we mean a company that provides services to individuals and businesses including water, electricity, gas and telecoms.  

In some countries, they may be part-state owned and they might have multiple arms that deliver more than one of these services.  They might also be involved in upstream activities like drilling and power generating or midstream activities like refinement and purification. But for the purposes of this post, we are focused on the downstream retail and distribution activities that affect you and me as consumers or businesses.

Agreements in utilities

The average age of a utility company tends to be quite high - many were state owned and born in the industrialisation era as electricity, gas and fresh water became mainstream.

  • Centrica (owner of British Gas) in the UK has its origins in the Gas Light and Coke Company which was founded in 1812
  • EDF (Électricité de France) was founded in France in 1946 by nationalising 1700 smaller producers

As a result, many of the processes in these organisations pre-date any kind of digitisation.  Even as websites have been developed and new customer service channels have been deployed, many of the backend processes that deliver your service are stubbornly paper-based.

At DocuSign, we are lucky to count many of the top utility companies among our customers - and here are some of the most common examples of paper-based agreements that we see ready for digitisation.

Project Management

Even in a digital world, water, electricity, gas and telecoms need to get through the physical ground to get to your customers.  With new housing developments, road works and upgrades of networks, much of your efforts are directed towards delivering infrastructure projects to install or amend these pipes.

Projects require plans, diagrams, contractors, sub-contractors, the authority to dig, road closures, budgets, project sign-offs, quality control, health and safety and compliance sign-offs amongst many other documents and agreements that need signing.

With most of the people involved in this process being far from an office, the cycle time for getting these approved and signed can be significant. And the quality of what comes back into your contract repository can be questionable.

Sales

Most B2C sales in utilities tend to be fairly simple today.  Often these don’t even require a signature and are contracted off the back of a “tick’” to accept the terms and conditions.  Challenges that utilities face in this scenario include accurately tracking the specific version of your Terms and Conditions that a consumer “ticked” and how to conveniently gain and track acceptance of changes to these Terms and Conditions as they evolve.

Most utility companies also have a significant B2B Sales function, and here things get more complex.  You need to draft Master Service Agreements, Quotes, Sales Orders, Statement of Works and you then negotiate these with your customer’s legal teams.  A flurry of different versions, redlines and custom clauses can slow your process down, but more importantly, they can introduce errors into your agreements that are difficult for the human eye to spot.

Customer Service

Your Customer Service team is the engine room of a utility company. No doubt you have an extensive omnichannel contact centre with teams responding to social, chat, phone and email, working hard to keep customers happy.  Many resolutions require customers to agree to something with a signature. Common examples that we see include:

  • Billing changes such as address or payment details
  • Customer Onboarding forms for B2B Sales
  • Connection Requests and Project Sign-Offs
  • Elderly Forms
  • Deceased Customer Forms
  • Multiple Connect Forms
  • Financial Hardships/Payment Plans
  • Field Service Requests
  • Direct Debit Forms

Whenever you hear “I’ll pop that in the post for you today” consider the cost, the time and the environmental impact of sending someone a short form purely so you can get a wet signature from them.  

It is also worth considering the customer experience in those situations.  Your customer is in the frame of mind to complete their request, they want to see the process move forward - asking them to wait 48 hours for a letter to arrive is a bad reflection on your brand.

Human Resources

Utility companies are big employers - typically 10,000 employees and above with a range of team members from field engineers hanging from an electricity pylon, to those hard-working contact centre workers.  

HR is responsible for one of the most important processes in the organisation, from hiring to retiring: Offer letters, contracts, onboarding paperwork and equipment assignment followed by training and health and safety policies needing to be signed. 

Every day added from job posting to a fully productive employee is a big cost in a margin constrained business and yet we hear of multiple paper documents to be signed by candidates and new employees.  

You can read more about the impact of paper-based onboarding here.

Legal and Compliance

Utility companies are highly regulated, especially those that are partly state-owned.  As well as standard legal agreements including NDA’s and Master Services Agreements utilities are required to regularly submit compliance audits for power stations, refining plants and any facility that generates emissions into the environment.

Many of these compliance certificates and audit reports are naturally submitted from diverse and remote locations whereby paper-based and siloed processes take time to complete and introduce errors.

Supply Chain and Property

Utilities are physical companies.  Across multiple countries, they own land and buildings, reservoirs and power stations.  As well as their own property they have wayleaves and easements that grant them rights to install and maintain pipes and telegraph poles across private land.  All of these are supported by commercial property teams who manage the estate just as any other commercial property company would.

  • Long term and shorthold tenancies
  • Change of use
  • Planning permission
  • Development projects
  • Purchasing agreements
  • Sale agreements
  • Compulsory purchase agreements
  • Facilities Management agreements
  • Surveys
  • Wayleaves
  • Easements

Many of these agreements will not just need signing but also careful negotiation, approval and ongoing storage and analysis.  For example, wayleaves are typically temporary agreements that need renewing if they are not to lapse.

Where do utility companies start when digitising agreements?

The first step is to acknowledge there is a huge amount of paper across the organisation.  It is inefficient, prone to error and not environmentally friendly. No longer is the fact “we’ve always done it this way” sufficient to put off digitising the process.

But you can’t remove all the paper in one go.  You need to create an audit of all your agreements and assess them on a number of axes:

  • How many of this type of agreement do we sign a year?
  • What is the value of improving this type of agreement?
  • How easy is it to digitise this type of agreement?

For more advice on that take a look at this post on how to improve business processes.

Join your utility peers for breakfast

If you’d like to learn more about what your utility peers are doing to digitise their own agreement processes why not join us for our DocuSign Utilities Breakfast in London on Tuesday 17th March.  We are hosting a small group of leaders to network and share lessons learned. Read the agenda and register here.

I hope this post was useful.  We’d love to know your suggestions of top paper-based processes in your utility company and we’ll continue to add them to this post.

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