video Podcast Episode 10

Charles Solanki from Switchee

This week, we're talking with Charles Solanki, our very own Customer Success Manager at Switchee. We talk about the lessons learned through deploying IoT into social housing over the last few years, the ways housing providers can minimise the administrative overhead of new innovation measures as well as what to look for in a new IoT partner.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hello and welcome to another Switchee podcast. We're joined today by an expert in IoT rollouts, with years and years of experience getting smart connected devices into social housing properties. He just so happens to also be a colleague of mine and his name is Charles Solanki. We're really happy to have you on the podcast today.

Charles:
Thanks, Alastair!

Alastair:
No problem. Charles, now I know you very well and I know you have a great understanding of this sector but maybe for our viewers, could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the housing sector and with Switchee?

Charles:
Yeah, of course. So, I initially joined Switchee back in September 2016. Coming up 5 years ago now, which is crazy to think but I was at university looking into working at a start-up and I ended up bumping into our old friend and colleague Ian Napier at a wedding. One thing led to another and within a couple of months, I was working for him at Switchee and ever since I’ve been in the housing sector. Well, I say ever since I did do a year away but yeah. More recently in the last year, I've been working on customer success at Switchee. Trying to work with lots of our customers to ensure that we're proving the value of our devices and IoT in general such that they're willing to invest heavily into rolling it out across their housing stock.

Alastair:
Thanks, Charles! Yeah, I think that's mainly what we wanted to talk about today is you've been working within our customer success team for a little while now and you're probably in a privileged situation within the industry to have helped 20 different clients to get to a roll-out of IoT devices and smart devices. So I guess the first thing that I wanted to do is just ask you the question in your own words, do you think there's actually a need for IoT and smart connected devices in the housing sector?

Charles:
Yeah, absolutely. I think if I was to put myself in the shoes of a housing association or local authority. Many of our customers own tens of thousands of properties if not even hundreds of thousands of properties. It's near on impossible to monitor those properties well enough, nowadays, to comply with all the increasing number of laws out there for the landlords. You've spoken about this at length on the podcast before and we've got many blogs and white papers about it but we talk about Fitness for human habitation a lot at Switchee. There is an increasing number of those types of rules coming in to ensure that properties are good enough for people to live in. Now, if you've got a hundred thousand properties or even a hundred properties, it's going to be difficult to make sure that all of those properties are up to scratch unless you're sending operatives out en-mass to go and look at them. Now, a lot of our customers do that with armies of surveyors and neighbourhood managers and they do an absolutely fantastic job and they're great to work with. But we firmly believe that if they had access to data on those properties and it was easily accessible, then it would make their lives easier. Allowing them to understand how those properties are performing and being able to target where they need to do more maintenance.

Now, I think that the other critical thing here is, and funnily enough, I wrote a blog about this a couple of months ago. So a small plug for that. But we've seen in loads of other industries that IoT has really flourished and the housing sector hasn't quite got there yet. But we're well on the way. We look at the automotive industry, the logistics industry, the manufacturing industry, they all use IoT really, really effectively. I mean, even last week, most of us would have seen the images from mars that NASA have taken and that's all IoT technology. We're trying to do a slightly less complex version at Switchee in the housing sector.

A really good example of that comes from one of our cloud engineers who told me last year when he first joined. One of his friends was working in a data consultancy and one of their customers was a large cafe chain. Now you talk to any cafe owner and they'll tell you that one of the biggest pain points is all the kit they have to buy. Now, this cafe hired this consulting firm to basically predict when those coffee machines were going to break down. So they knew the day that the coffee machine was most likely to break down and an operative would be sent to go and fix that coffee machine even before any of the baristas or people working at the cafe knew it had broken down. I think that's a really, really good example of how IoT can be used really effectively to reduce long-term costs.

We see it in cars now - you jump in lots of cars these days and it will tell you if the front left tyre has gone down or all sorts of other pieces of information because it's got sensors littered all over it. Now we know that in the housing sector, it can be a bit more challenging. We need to retrofit 30 million homes in the UK and therein lies the biggest challenge for housing. And we'll come on to this in a moment but how that challenge is tackled is important. I think that we've seen how effectively it's been done in other industries and we're really keen to see it used effectively in housing as well.

Alastair:
Indeed. So, from maybe Mars to Marlow! We've seen IoT working in lots of different industries there as you've mentioned but it could be used on some particular issues that we're seeing in the housing sector. Striving for net-zero and tackling issues like condensation, damp and mould for fitness for human habitation. Whilst IoT isn't massively established in housing there are different people doing different smart connected offerings and IoT offerings. Have you got any advice for our viewers about how to choose what partners they used?

Charles:
Yeah, certainly. I mean, the first thing I’d encourage any housing provider looking to implement IoT is to look at the skin in the game of that IoT provider. Housing is such a specific industry and there are so many things you need to know about the industry to succeed in it. Entering the market with no prior knowledge of it can be really, really challenging. And I think it's very tempting as an IoT provider because you look at the sheer number of properties in social housing in the UK or across Europe and you think, “Ah! We're onto a winner here. It will be easy”. But it's absolutely not and one of the things that we were guilty of doing 5 or 6 years ago, prior to you joining Alastair. You were somebody who had years and years of experience working in the sector and completely transformed how we approached trying to win customers and that completely changed the game. Now a lot of our sales team have lots of experience in housing and that's benefited us massively. So that's the first point I’d say is look at their skin in the game. Like, how much work have these IoT providers done in the housing sector? There are lots of them out there now that are doing really fantastic work and for us, it's not really a case of them being competitors. The more adept the housing sector is at introducing IoT, the better it is for all of us. So it's not a competition as such.

The final point I’d make is really having a clear business case. What's the return on investment? What's the payback period for implementing IoT at your organisation? Now, this is one of the challenges again. It does tie back to having skin in the game. It's difficult to do this as a new entrant into the market. We've been working for years and years to be able to build a really robust business case and that's only happened because we've had thousands of conversations with housing providers and been able to pick up lots and lots of data, which has helped us build our case and also get a good understanding of the sector. Now I think that one of the challenges still is that IoT is sometimes seen as a nice to have. A bit of a fluffy thing. The full benefits of it haven't yet been grasped and trying to put that in monetary terms is something that will take a bit more time. But, I think that you compare it to a boiler, for example, that might be sold by the manufacturers being 10%/15% more efficient and it's quite easy to build a payback period for that. That's something that all of us could see off the shelf and say, “Okay. Yeah, we're going to be safe in the knowledge that in 2 to 3 years, it will payback”. With IoT, it's a slightly different game and we're still all finding out really what are the cost savings and we've got a pretty good idea now but certainly having a provider that has a robust business case I think will be useful.

Alastair:
Thanks for that Charles! Yeah, so a bit of knowledge specific to the market that we're working in. I totally agree with that and some sort of understanding for what can be quite unique problems within the sector. There's such a sort of mixture of regulation, kind of public sector, almost third sector stuff but, you've also got a commercial organisation in a landlord. So it's a really, really interesting market mix. You've talked about the business case here. I think something that we've done really well at Switchee and something that's benefited our customers is just being able to take their data to inform the business case that they're putting forward internally and this is massively important. We've talked about IoT and smart devices with a number of clients over a number of years and you know, you always find that there are people in innovation and sustainability and fuel poverty departments who are interested in doing this because they can see the benefit. But ultimately, the exec teams and the CEO and CFO have to actually sign something off. So something that has been really important is getting a robust business case together based on information from that specific housing provider, and then the numbers speak for themselves.

So the other thing is if you're trying to prove value over time, you often need a full stock rollout to show what that would be if you're going to try and change business processes and change the way that you interact with residents and look after your properties. But actually, how do you get to rollout? That's quite difficult as well. I just wanted you to share some of the experiences that you've had about easing the process and making it as seamless as possible to roll IoT out into properties.

Charles:
Yeah, sure. So I think a process that we as a business went through a couple of years ago that you were very heavily involved with, Alastair, actually was working with a gentleman named Dave Carr. We really focused on how do we build a pilot process, so that we can ensure that we're covering all the bases, such that by the end both parties are satisfied that there's enough proof here and there's enough evidence and data to warrant further installs. That for us has been a complete game-changer as a business and yourself, Isabel, JK, and all those who've been involved over the years have been really, really vital in that.

Now I think that's the first step of it. What are you trying to achieve in this pilot is, you mentioned just now, we get lots of inbounds from sustainability teams digital and transformation teams. Now, they'll have specific needs but one of the things that we try to impart to our customers is that IoT can be beneficial for the entire organisation. If you just pigeonhole it into certain sections, then whilst it can drive benefit, you might not be getting the whole picture. So I think understanding really what are you trying to achieve from this is important. Is it that you have an old estate that is known to have lots of issues in it and you're just trying to gather data from that or are you actually thinking long term, big picture. You want to have an IoT device in every single one of your properties in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. And I think once we know that, we'll have a much clearer picture of how we go about running the pilots and there are a number of ways that we can do this.

So if I just start on the pilot, we agree on lots of different things that we want to achieve. Switchee has a number of different features that we'll try and test. We get to the end of the pilot, we build this bespoke business case that you've just mentioned. We present it critically to the executive teams of the business because we know that if we don't have buy-in from them then the chance of getting this rollout is going to be more difficult and once, and if, we do get that decision, then fantastic. But that's almost only the start of the journey. The next steps to making it seamless are capitalizing on the existing processes that you have to get the devices installed and we know that for lots of companies, the main challenge or the main fear with IoT is still installs.

We touched on it earlier. In the UK, we're going to be tackling the electrification of heat and gas system over the next 20 or 30 years. It's going to be a massive effort. But, it's doable and we know that lots of our customers have boiler replacement schemes. They have void schemes, they have other major work schemes. These are all schemes where you've got workers going into those properties with the skills and qualifications to install what is ultimately a heating control. It's not super complicated and they can spend an extra half an hour - sometimes they have to install a heating control anyway - and get this device installed. So capitalizing on those opportunities. They are the most cost-effective means of getting these devices installed and we sound like a broken record to lots of our customers sometimes saying, “Please just get on the boiler replacement scheme. Please get it on the void scheme” because we know that we've been burnt in the past by having customers who have targeted installs into specific estates and the install costs balloon and then things get quite hairy.

But again going back to the skin in the game, we've made the mistakes in IoT. So, if you can do it in the ways that I’ve just mentioned then fantastic. And I think that the next point is really being able to work effectively with every department, really having key stakeholders involved. So, oftentimes people will think sustainability teams are really important, the assets team of course are very important. They're going to be overseeing the budget of the installs and lots of the other benefits. But the communications team are going to be really great to work with as well because there is a device here that can be communicated with. Make sure that this isn't only being pigeon-holed into one specific department.

Finally just being able to ensure that you have a lot of existing processes. So how do you schedule appointments? How do you send messaging campaigns out? How do you become alerted that certain properties need a looking at? And by having our data and integrating it into existing systems, that will be a critical factor in the success of any IoT rollout. So being willing to invest in that as well will be a really important part of the jigsaw.

Alastair:
Thank you, Charles! Lots of great insights there as you say, we've sort of trod the board, or whatever the expression is. We've done this. We've made some mistakes and we've also got some successes out of this. Keeping an eye on the costs and keeping those down is important but normalizing this into existing major works processes, existing budgets is likely the best way to move forward with it. It's something that can be complicated and daunting trying to get IoT into every property that you've got or it can become business as usual if you're able to integrate into those existing streams as I mentioned. Just because you touched on it before Charles, you were starting to talk about the kind of electrification of heat side of things and it might be interesting to share any experiences that you've had or we've had collectively in controlling heat pumps and ground source heat pumps and sort of where our customers may be able to think about IoT in that regard.

Charles:
Yeah, sure. So I think we're all really excited about the electrification of heat, those of us keen to ensure a greener future for the UK. Increasingly we're seeing at a quite rapid rate now customers say, “Oh! Can you install with the heat pump? Can you install with ground source air source?" Whatever it may be and yes, we can. But with those systems comes a lot of teething problems. I think that everybody will agree. They work very, very differently from a gas system. We're all so used to just turning on the heating, the water is then heated up to 85 degrees, your home heats up within next to no time even if you've got poor insulation. Then on the flip side, you've got the heat pumps which are super efficient and amazing from that perspective but heat up the water to say 50/60 degrees. It takes an extra amount of time to be able to heat up the whole property. You can't have the heating and hot water on at the same time in most cases and with that, comes lots of challenges in the uptake for the residents.

So in our experience, actually having data from those properties to see how each one's performing has been really, really helpful to our customers. We're rolling out at quite a pace now with different variants of heat pumps and again, it's another use case really for IoT because, without the data available, it would be much harder for our customers to be able to assess the validity in the performance of those heat pumps.

Alastair:
Absolutely and something that I know you've been involved with is looking at property archetypes and also where certain properties would suit different measures. I think there's a whole suite of different things that are coming in now in terms of energy efficiency measures under the social housing decarbonisation fund and net-zero plans. Really it's about assessing the property and the resident and assessing the suitability of those measures for both of those elements. Then monitoring afterwards to check whether there have been any unintended consequences. So Charles we're kind of running out of time. Thank you for joining us today!

I guess in summary, where the housing sector is slightly behind the curve on IoT and where it's been adopted in other industries it's for understandable reasons. It's quite a niche area and therefore, it needs some specialists probably to look at the particular problems. So that's the key thing. As a housing provider, you've got to start with the problem. Don't start with the technology, start with the problem that you're trying to fix. Then select your partners. Select them based on their experience within the area that you're trying to solve but also the sector because it can be quite unique and specific. And finally, if you make the decision that you want to put IoT and connected devices into as many of your properties as possible, it's about leveraging your existing routes to doing that. Leverage your existing major works budget, your existing heating replacement budget, and also those business processes. So it's business as usual, we stick in the IoT devices at the same time that we would stick in something else with the qualified people to do it either DLOs or contractors. Charles it's been an absolute pleasure having you on, thank you! And yeah, we'll catch up again soon.

Charles:
Thank you! Thanks Al.

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