Buyer Spotlight E01: Bharat Gas, LPG Business Unit of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited

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For us at Greyhound Research, IT Decision Makers are the most important stakeholders. For it’s a set of stakeholders we work the most closely with. To put this in perspective, nearly 70% of our business comes from these stakeholders and they occupy more than 80% of our time as a company. So it is only natural and expected for us to extend our Spotlight series of research content to include the voice of these IT Decision Makers.

Under our Spotlight series, we have so far launched research content streams spanning Product, Services, and the Industry.

For each of these streams, we host relevant leaders and subject matter experts from across the globe and quiz them on a topic of choice. While the Buyer Spotlight series will share format with other spotlight series content, it will be differentiated in terms of its focus on the buyers of technology, i.e. IT Decision Makers. This series aims to bring out the rationale behind IT investments, expected outcomes, and learnings during implementation.

In this 1st exchange (E01) of Buyer Spotlight, we host Mona Srivastava, Chief Manager at Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL). In her current role, Mona leads branding, marketing, and all things Digital for Bharat Gas, the LPG business unit of BPCL.

Greyhound Research: Mona, firstly, thanks for making time for Buyer Spotlight. Before we deep dive any further, let’s lay some context for our readers. At Bharat Gas, BPCL’s LPG division, you serve more than 8.5 crores (85 million) households and service more than 13 lakh (1.3 million) households daily via a network of about 6,500+ distributors. And as mentioned during some of our earlier conversations, the focus of the business is primarily on the rural market. It’s a well-known fact that rural India is a very complex market that is changing its expectations in terms of customer service, and customer satisfaction but doesn’t necessarily have the appetite to pay. So, in such a complex market, can you first help me understand the gaps that you were trying to bridge with technology. Were these problems only largely customer-focused, or included those of your distributors and delivery staff?

Mona: Let me start by going back into history and doing a bit of time travel. It was as far back as 2000 when we began to computerize the distributors’ part of the work. To give you a background, a distributor typically would receive orders from the customers and then delivers them. Then he will have to do stock accounting and then some cash accounting. So, the four key processes for the distributor were completely manual.

To digitize and automate the end-to-end order to delivery process, we at Bharat Gas built our in-house software called LPG Next that our 6,500 distributors continue to use to date.

Back then, we advised them on what kind of dot matrix printers and which computers they should buy. Most of the distributors were naturally very jittery about this changeover because what they felt was that this change would take away their control over the business. For some context, the concern was that since these distributors didn’t know how to operate the software, they would have to keep people who were well versed with run running the software, and therefore they felt that the control of the business was slipped from their hands. While much has changed in technology, this statement and mindset have remained the same.

Any business which is trying to digitize its whole operations, somewhere the people, wherever they are in the chain of the events, always have a sense of losing control.

So, they feel some unknown entity is now coming and will control everything, and they will not have any role in decision making. And I feel there’s a similar resistance today in 2022 with AI and Machine Learning. So, in terms of filling the gaps, whether external or internal, the challenges remain on both fronts.

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Greyhound Research: The LPG Next application sound extremely fascinating. Can you please give me a sense if this application also includes support and functionality for the on-the-ground staff that delivers the LPG cylinder to the end customer?

Mona: Think of LPG Next as a kind of a motherboard. Everything else is built onto it, including all our external integrations. So, we see LPG Next more as a platform and not just software. And now, through API calls, everything is built through that ecosystem. So, whether it is our IVR or the last mile delivery app, which the delivery boy is using, or in the showroom itself for the main work of accounting and everything, this LPG Next is the bedrock on which everything inbuilt. This includes our digital payments, including NPCI Bharat BillPay and other similar integrations.

Greyhound Research: From an operational efficiencies and inventory management perspective, I am sure this has helped ensure that the supply chain and deliveries are optimized. But let’s talk about the customer first. You’ve made a lot of investments in technology from a rural focus. Now tell me what the mothership problems were when you were trying to solve for your customer in the rural sector where trust gaps are high, the use of digital payments is low, and overall, there’s skepticism with technology. What was the mindset that you were dealing with?

Mona: Sure, let’s go back a little when the smartphone usage was not that much, and we were mostly dependent on landlines. Even though the mobility had come (in 2011-12), the biggest pain point for a customer was running out of cooking gas at home. Now, so much has changed. But think of when the electrical cooking gadgets were not that popular, and a household was so heavily dependent on LPG only for fuel needs. Running out of gas was like a living nightmare. Even contacting the distributor back then was a challenging task since all his lines would always be busy. Hence many had to resort to going physically to distributors and standing in long lines to book a cylinder. But all that changed drastically when we brought the technology of the IVR.

Greyhound Research: That’s some excellent context, thank you. We will talk about the more recent times of demonetization and the pandemic, but if you were to contextualize and point to two issues that you believe customers continue to grapple with despite so much technology, what would those be? I’m sure language is a problem. And I’m sure sometimes even trusting digital payment methods will be a problem. What are the current customer mindset challenges if you were to contextualize as a leader?

Mona: I would say that you know by now we have overcome most of those challenges. And our efforts with the IVR have gone a long way in helping us achieve this feat. In the past, customers were attached to a distributor, and each of them had a passbook or a diary and a local phone number. With our investments in IVR, we were able to change that dramatically.

We at Bharat Gas came up with a single all-India number on which the customer could call. So with the common number, customers now don’t need to remember who is their distributor – hence, the distributor has become nameless and faceless.

But the fact is, in a country like India, IVR cannot be successful unless you support multiple languages. So we built in the language capabilities, and as of today, the IVR is supporting 13 languages. We also further added the capability that the IVR will register your preferred language against your registered mobile number. So you only have to exercise your language choice once. This IVR, in turn, speaks to our LPG Next platform that helps identify the customer and their preferred choices.

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Greyhound Research: I have a related question about this. Fact is, today, security is a huge problem. This includes Sim cloning that allows the scammers access to passwords, OTPs, and more. So, how are you using things like OTP authentication, etc, to be able to secure booking access?

Mona: For the booking part, no OTP authentication is required because we have made the system itself secure. Because Bharat Gas is verifying the customer’s phone number that is tied to our database, we allow the customer to call the IVR only from the registered mobile number. In addition, the delivery is only made to the registered address. So, it’s a kind of a closed loop. So, yes, so as far as booking is concerned, we are taking care of it.

Now coming to digital payments, we will start with voice-based digital payments. So, RBI has just announced the UPI 123 pay, and we have been working over the past months with multiple digital payment partners, including Airtel, to actualize this. Specifically, we are integrating the voice-based digital onto the Airtel IVR platform. So, when a customer comes now for the booking, he will have two options: you can either pay and book, or you can only book. This is for the first time that something like this is happening in India. Of course, we were lucky to have cracked this. To share more specifics, Ultracash is the name of the partner that has tied up with NPCI, and hence we also partnered with them.

10% of current LPG bookings at Bharat Gas are happening via the digital pay and book option.

The end goal, of course, is to integrate all of this with IVR since Airtel is a very important partner for us, and we don’t want to build separate entities or systems. This approach makes sense because the customer is adapted to the system, and the number is already there, so we don’t need to popularize it. So for this transition, they will continue to call the same number, but now it will also have an added feature of payments.

Greyhound Research: And how will that, let’s say, impact your supply chain operational efficiencies, because I’m sure you know, at some stage, there will be some sort of prioritization given to people who pay and book over those who just book?

Mona: When more and more people come to pay and book rather only from booking, it helps us know the urgencies or the priorities with the customer. Because if you are paying and booking, you surely have some urgency in your mind, right? Otherwise, you can just book it assuming the normal delivery timing of a few days for the cylinder to arrive at your address. We assume that you want it quickly when you are paying for something upfront.

So, we will be giving preferences to those bookings which have come through the advanced payment methods. If till lunchtime, whatever pay and book we have received, we try and deliver it the same day, or at least by next day. Of course, this timeline is possible only when the supply chain is adequately flush with cylinders. Let’s not forget that the petroleum industry is very vulnerable in terms of supplies, and so many global factors impact us, like the current war between Russia and Ukraine.

Greyhound Research: I have a related question on this one, the book and pay and the book only. While demonetization has meant more urban areas are digital-first, including payments, the pandemic has also increased the reliance and trust in digital payment platforms. But then, for rural markets that are your primary focus, not everyone uses digital payments (or trusts them still). Do you provide ways for such customers to use other payment modes at the doorstep?

Mona: In addition to cash, there are other options for a customer to use digital payments for doorstep delivery. The most obvious and popular is the use of QR codes. So, the delivery boy carries the QR code on his employment ID, and the customer just scans it and makes the payment. Then the last mile delivery app, which is an extension of the LPG Next, can make the spot booking, do delivery, and generate a payment link that is sent to the registered mobile number of the customer. It can also be sent to someone else’s number if the person whose number is registered is not at home.

Currently, 10% of LPG bookings at Bharat Gas make use of the QR code option for payment at the time of cylinder delivery.

And then we also have our app called Hello BPCL. Customers can download and do all the transactions like booking payments, applying for a new connection, and applying for an address change, among other options.

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Greyhound Research: Can you share some figures regarding the impact on your business model on account of these changes via digital payments and other apps?

Mona: Sure. In April 2019, our digital payments were only 3% of the total transactions in a month. Today, that number has crossed 30%. So that’s the kind of growth that we have seen. And what we did was that we went in and associated ourselves with multiple channels where the customer will find us. So today, you go on Amazon, on Paytm, on PhonePay, we are there. We are there on all banking apps like SBI Yono, among others. We are also there on the Government of India called Umang.

To share an example, we have tied up with Amazon to allow customers to book and pay via Alexa and Amazon Pay. This has helped up connect with the more urban audience where Amazon Alexa devices are being increasingly seen. Here’s an explainer video of this service, take a look:

Greyhound Research: That leads me to the next question. You know, you championed IVR, the mobile app, and now you’re integrating the two. But what about the other touchpoints like WhatsApp and chatbots?

Mona: We are already there on WhatsApp and currently doing around 30,000 to 40,000 bookings on the WhatsApp platform. We also have a chatbot called Urja, popular for queries and transactions every day.

At Bharat Gas, IVR remains the most popular channel for us, given its convenience. Even WhatsApp does not offer such simplicity to our customers since it requires customers to give inputs.

On the IVR, customers are used to pressing 1 for booking, and it’s become muscle memory for them. Some don’t even wait to hear the menu. This isn’t something that WhatsApp or chatbots offer. As an organization, we have tried to wean away from the customer from IVR to WhatsApp since the latter allows us to use push messaging or send out content. But customers are not ready to leave the IVR.

Greyhound Research: This is a rather interesting problem statement, and I’m sure as more millennials, and the relatively younger population starts using more of your services, you will begin to see more traction for channels like WhatsApp and chatbots. Switching gears a bit, you mentioned the ability to push content to customers. Please share how you get customers and distributors to sign up for new applications, automation, and other technology tools?

Mona: Yes, this is an interesting area that requires continuous work from our end since old habits are hard to break. Our marketing and technology teams work closely to communicate key features to customers and distributors and launch targeted campaigns for each.

While for customers, we use channels like YouTube and social media to educate, engage, and onboard, for the distributors, we have an entire Learning and Development approach to help them fully utilize the applications and other tools.

For example, we recently launched a campaign specifically targeted at rural customers who don’t have access to a smartphone or high-speed internet. The campaign essentially educates them on how to use feature phones to book their gas cylinders and even use UPI or other digital payment options to pay for the cylinders. The campaign also further underpins our IVR option to make bookings in a few minutes. This ability to use feature phones is also extended with the ability to make bookings via SMS. Here’s a video of the campaign; take a look:

Greyhound Research: This is an excellent use case of how technology can help the large masses of India that are yet to get access to smart devices! Thanks for sharing. On another note, can you please share some examples of Bharat Gas using internal dashboards, data, and analytics? Also, can you please give me a sense of how you use this data to map usage patterns and use predictive analytics to improve customer experience?

Mona: So, data and analytics are critical to what we do, and essentially all our efforts are underpinned by some or other measurable metrics. While this is a large field within BPCL, and it will be impossible to cover all aspects, allow me to give you an example of how we use it to help customers better prepare for cylinder availability.

Using data, we at Bharat Gas have been able to work out the approximate number of days in which a customer orders a new cylinder. So, using those patterns, we have now launched an outbound call facility in partnership with Airtel.

Again, our IVR is central to this facility and has helped ensure our customers don’t have to face outages with their gas cylinders. This is particularly helpful for those who don’t have access to the passbook in which cylinder delivery is registered. Here’s a video of the campaign; take a look:

Greyhound Research: In closing, let’s talk about Airtel and your relationship with them. My current understanding of your engagement with them tells me that they are your service provider of choice for the platform that brings together the IVR, SMS, OTP, CRM, Payment Gateway, and data from other apps. Essentially a partner for far more than just IVR. Even on the IVR, I have been told that more than 80% of Bharat Gas’s bookings currently come directly or are supported by the IVR. That’s a great testament to the importance of IVR for Bharat Gas. But it’s an important reminder of the relationship at work here between Bharat Gas and Airtel. Can you please share how the relationship has evolved over the years? And how do you see the relationship evolving hereon?

Mona: Airtel has been a long-standing partner since we started our IVR journey. They have offered the necessary backbone in the form of their network-backed CPaaS platform-Airtel IQ, on which the entire IVR is hosted. The platform is integrated with our CRM using robust, flexible APIs, which ensures that the LPG cylinder booking experience is seamless and always available to our customers. As a result, we have rarely had a situation where there’s been an escalation.

What is most impressive about BPCL’s relationship with Airtel is the response times. This proved to be extremely helpful during the pandemic when the government ordered free cylinder refills under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.

Specifically, three refills to the Ujwala customers had to be given free by Bharat Gas and other providers. This was when we introduced the OTP system in our app, which helped us track delivery. As we evolve hereon, we are now using Airtel infrastructure for all our OTP needs. Please understand that when we say OTP, it’s lakhs of OTPs being sent out in minutes and hours. So Airtel here plays a critical role in ensuring we don’t fail to deliver on this account.

Also, of course, our technology team works closely with their development team to ensure new feature functionalities keep getting added to the core IVR platform. This includes integrations via APIs of other applications that we are onboard across the ecosystem.

We expect Airtel to play a much greater role in our move to the Cloud and migrate the IVR setup and the platform in a hybrid setup. Currently, however, our database resides in the BPCL data center. But we expect this to be moved to a Cloud setup soon.

Greyhound Research: Mona, thank you very much for speaking with us. We truly appreciate it.

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