This past month Master Meter, Inc. had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at the Texas Water Conference. Our VP of Marketing, Ian MacLeod, joined a panel with City of Mansfield Utilities Division Director, Jeff Price; and Rogue Water COO, Arianne Shipley, moderated by Michelle Camp of WaterSmart Software. The goal of the discussion was to demonstrate to other utility members that a mixed meter customer base does not take AMI off the table.
The city of Mansfield has a population of about 75,000 people with around 22,150 connections. While investing in AMI may have felt daunting for a city that size, it was one that made sense. AMI promised increased operational efficiency, better meter reading accuracy, and better customer service. “The phased approach made sense for Mansfield financially as we did not want to incur the huge capital costs of deploying a full AMI system,” explained Jeff Price. “We’re currently about half AMR and half AMI.” Jeff and his team managed the transition by closely managing their assets and aligning the deployment of new meters with the budget each year. “We make meter installation decisions based on where we can get the most bang for our buck.”
Optimizing the initial costs of deployment when related to ROI are going to vary, mainly depending on the size of the utility. Regardless of size, every city will need to gain the buy-in and support from the public and elected officials to secure funding. “I think most utilities understand the value of AMI at this point,” said Ian MacLeod. “We recommend utilities focus on the value of AMI for their customers because this unlocks greater value from the technology.” According to McKinsey Global Institute, a smart solution is not “smart” until it has engagement from the community. Participation will only come with public buy-in. Buy-in will only occur when utilities convey what’s in it for the customer. Water utilities need to communicate the value of AMI through the lens of what matters most to the end user—your customer, the ratepayer.
Mansfield communication staff used customer engagement to earn customer buy-in with the portal, but not without a few lessons learned. “We strategically chose to begin the change-out program with key stakeholders such as council members, city leadership, and community influencers,” explained Arianne Shipley. “However, we later realized we hadn’t done a great job at communicating the same benefits to the rest of our customers receiving new meters.” A perfect storm hit in 2015 when a combination of Texas heat, new meters, and the end of drought-triggered watering restrictions resulted in water bill increases for a significant number of customers. This created a wave of skepticism and frustration among the public that was directed at local water utilities, including Mansfield. City staff used this as an opportunity to engage with the public where they already were such as local festivals, events, and HOA meetings. They combined these face to face engagements with their established communication channels including social media, newsletters, local newspapers, utility bill inserts, etc. “Don’t forget to equip customer service representatives or field crews with talking points. Give them the means to collect contact information too,” said Shipley.
The collaboration between Master Meter, WaterSmart, and the city was key to the success of the program. Master Meter and WaterSmart worked together to make the process as seamless as possible for both the city and their customers. The city focused on communicating the benefits that resonated most with customers. They also saw success partnering with key community stakeholders, such as Mansfield ISD, that gave them access to customers via a new communication channel. Identify early adopters that can champion your program to help create a smooth transition. Keep in mind; it’s never too early to start communicating the change to your customers. Frequency builds trust with customers. Seth Godin says it best in his latest book, This is Marketing. “The market has been trained to associate frequency, with trust,” explained Godin. “If you quit right in the middle of building that frequency, it’s no wonder you never got a chance to earn the trust.” Water utilities are entrusted with the health and safety of public drinking water. Communication is the first step to building a reservoir of trust with your customers.