According to George Hawkins, when it comes to conveying the value of water to customers as its related to rates, the premise is innovation. He explained this idea at the Water Utility Symposium hosted by the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) in August 2018.
“There is no way to tell a customer that we’re doing the same thing we were doing before better unless there’s something that’s changed,” explains Hawkins. “There’s only one answer to that which is we’ve innovated a creative solution that allows us to do something better, or faster, or cheaper than we used to do.”
The water industry is understandably risk-averse when it comes to technology and innovation. When public health is at stake, water providers can’t afford to be wrong. While there is plenty of truth in this statement, it’s not the only side to the water tech coin. As technology continues to become more and more a part of everyday life, the expectation of service from customers evolves as well. Water customers don’t perceive water service any different than other utilities. Resistance to rate increases can stem from this perceived lack of value as customers run their own cost-benefit analyses.
What if water technology could save the day?
Systems that open the lines of communication and offer more opportunity for transparency around data are the first step, low-risk options for adoption. Data that once sat in boxes at treatment plants or water towers can now be collected and managed in a way that can be shared with your customers. This data is valuable to customers who want to know more about what really goes on behind the curtain—not the internet trolls but the people who simply want to understand.
According to a nationwide survey conducted by Corona Environmental Consulting presented at the 2018 Utilities Management Conference, the majority of the population across the country, 77 percent, are at some level supportive of water providers investing in improvements. Investing in systems that give customers more access and control of their water use, provide real-time notifications, or simplifies lead and copper testing are all ways to convey the value of water. The 21st-century water customer doesn’t just enjoy these benefits of service, they now expect them. At the end of the day, customers want to know how what you’re doing is making their life easier. Offering these benefits and showing the value that’s possible in areas that impact them every day can help justify further investment in other areas later.
Nobody puts baby—or innovation—in the corner
Don’t make these improvements in the dark either. Communicate the changes far ahead of the rollout and explicitly state the benefits to them. Begin with a smaller pilot group if the potential for snags raises your blood pressure. Have a solid response plan in place ahead of the rollout that you’ve communicated to your entire team should any problems arise in the beginning. Keep in mind that this new tool is something you’ve been working on for months but it’s brand new for your customers. Regardless of how seamless or easy it may seem to you now, expect there to be a learning curve for your customers.
The water industry, whether public or private, needs the customers they serve to value water and in many cases, this means providing an enhanced level of service. Customer-facing technology can add value that extends not just to the customer, but also to the water providers by creating a culture that supports investment. As George Hawkins concluded in Australia, “creativity and innovation are core values of our industry. It unlocks a door to a relationship with the people we serve and the people who do the work and it literally is the future of our industry.”