August is National Water Quality Month so it seemed appropriate to dedicate some time to explore the difference in how customers perceive water quality as opposed to those in the industry. Ask anyone in the industry to define water quality and they’ll cite some definition related to the chemical and biological components of the water that directly impacts public health. Ask a person on the street and they’ll mention issues related to the smell, clarity, and taste of what comes out of the faucet. To be considered a “superior water system”, you have exceeded regulatory requirements by mitigating taste, smell, and turbidity issues which in the water industry world are seen simply as issues of aesthetics. However, to your customers, the buck stops there.
Each year J.D. Power conducts a survey of 40,000 water utility customers across 87 utilities across the country. According to the 2018 version of their Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, nearly one-third of customers report water quality problems, however, none of these issues would warrant a notice of violation. Among the 30% citing an issue, below are some of the problems they mentioned:
- 12% cite low pressure
- 11% cite bad taste
- 8% cite scaling/water hardness
- 8% cite discoloration
- 6% cite bad smell
- 4% cite high lead/mineral content
This disconnect can and has escalated into full-blown crisis control if not handled correctly. Your customers don’t have certified labs in their homes but every one of them has a nose, a mouth, and a pair of eyes. Your customer service line doesn’t start ringing when customers detect the faint presence of a potential contaminant. It starts ringing when they smell more chlorine in the water due to routine maintenance. They call when they notice an earthy smell when the lakes turnover.
If the water industry is ever going to earn the trust of customers related to true water quality contaminants, it has to understand water quality from the perspective of the customer and not what’s contained in the water quality report. We can’t continue to dismiss them by explaining we meet regulatory requirements on a chart. We have to acknowledge and address their concerns of what defines water quality.
COMMUNICATION: THE LOW HANGING FRUIT
This doesn’t mean a change in service, it means a reframing of how we communicate with customers so that we are all on the same page. It might mean more investment in treatment to handle the aesthetics or it might mean more targeted messaging that addresses the public’s water quality concerns. It might mean a combination of both. The bottom line is the necessity to know your audience and communicate accordingly.
“Whether it’s a serious problem like high lead or mineral counts, or a more subjective issue like a bad taste or low pressure, a significant number of residential water utility customers are not happy with the product,” said Andrew Heath, Senior Director of the Utility Practice at J.D. Power. “Water utilities need to understand why customer views are not matching the views of the water utility and need to address these concerns.”
Water quality problems sink customer satisfaction, with the biggest culprits being water hardness and bad smell. Communicating what causes these issues, what you are doing to combat them, and how customers can take action in their own homes (water softener, filters, etc) help educate customers to make more informed decisions. Consistent communication gives you an opportunity to explain the true public health issues you are managing every day while also showing that you acknowledge the issues that mean the most to them. According to the J.D. Power survey, “customer who recalls receiving four to five communications from their water utility have communications satisfaction scores that are 148 points higher than among those who do not recall receiving any direct communications.”
Just remember that your customers are bombarded by 5000 messages a day. It takes daily, or weekly, outreach across different mediums and platforms to achieve that recall of four to five communications. It takes work but the payback is customers who are more informed citizens that are not only more satisfied with the product you work tirelessly to produce but are also more likely to advocate for your organization.