January is often a time when people are setting new goals or looking for new ways of thinking. We’re approaching 2019 from a different perspective—instead of adding something new, let’s focus on something existing and improve upon it. A water utility’s customer service staff are often a city’s first impression. Few other departments connect with every new resident and even fewer are the first line of defense for residents with a complaint. How can advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) add value to both customer service and customer experience?
Every year, J.D. Power and Associates conduct a customer survey amongst water utility customers from across the country. In 2018, this survey included 40,000 customers representing 87 water utilities. The survey demonstrated significant room for improvement in customer service. An article in the December issue of the AWWA Journal, Assessing Consumer Engagement in the Water Utility Sector, shed some perspective on the disconnect between water utilities and their customers.
“On average, water utilities are the lowest performers in customer satisfaction across the industries that J.D. Power tracks.” The article goes on to explain that customer satisfaction with water utilities even further declines when customers interacted with them via the phone or website. This decline isn’t necessarily due to the level of performance but more so with the consumer expectation for customer service. Water utilities don’t operate in a vacuum. Our customers are customers of other entities, industries, and segments of the economy that are investing in their customer service efforts. Water utilities benefit by rising up to the same level of consumer expectation as expected from other public utilities. These entities are already investing in digital engagement technologies that offer a better understanding of customer needs and communications more tailored to customer preferences.
AMI presents the opportunity for water utilities to meet this expectation through more self-service functionality and convenience, but also a mechanism for more consistent communication. Communicating ahead of issues, especially aesthetic issues that often drive customer satisfaction scores prevents minor issues from escalating into negative media coverage or social media firestorms. AMI creates a feedback channel where customers can communicate with water utilities about the issues most important to them. It’s our responsibility to listen, adjust your messaging, and engage. Investing in engagement upfront builds trust.
In another December AWWA Journal article, Trust: Built in Seconds, Last for Years, communication expert Melanie Goetz offers this piece of advice, “Using an example from the water industry, utilities are required to keep a reserve of water to balance demands when supplies are low. Utilities should consider building up a reservoir of trust in much the same way, so in times of need, past efforts toward goodwill can help smooth over and even prevent difficult situations.”
Smart city technology, such as AMI, includes three layers of “smartness”—the physical infrastructure (meters), the smart applications (customer portal software), and adoption and usage. A smart solution fails to be “smart” if customers don’t see the value and don’t engage. Using tools like AMI to exceed customer expectations mixed with trained customer service staff is a success equation necessary to build the trust and support required to foster a sustainable water system.