As we prepare to dive into 2020, it is important to assess the challenges our industry will need to overcome in the years ahead.
As a meter technology company, we understand the importance of approaching challenges with smart solutions and proactive communication. Ultimately, our technology is all about helping customers and utilities to feel empowered, connected, and capable of taking on problems.
The American Water Works Association’s 2019 State of the Water Industry Report sheds light on the top 30 issues facing the water industry. Medium to very large utilities rated aging infrastructure as their top issue; small utilities were most concerned with water sources and water rights. Overall, industry leaders ranked the top five issues as:
- Renewal and replacement of aging water and wastewater infrastructure
- Financing for capital improvements
- Long-term water supply availability
- Public understanding of the value of water systems and services
- Watershed/source water protection
The first step to solving any of these issues is clear communications, both internally and with the public.
Emphasize the Value of Water and Infrastructure
Our customers are accustomed to hearing from us in only two circumstances: 1) when we need money, and 2) when there is a problem with the water supply. These communications are necessary, but our customers are more than ratepayers. They are our community and our greatest assets.
Most customers aren’t thrilled when their water rates increase. However, there is a growing need to repair and replace aging infrastructure. More than 65 percent of respondents intend to raise rates in the next year according to the State of the Water Industry report.
You can ease the tension customers feel when their rates increase by providing insight into their water’s source and journey. Help your community to understand the value of water: their rates allow the utility to acquire, clean and distribute water, as well as to collect, clean and dispose of wastewater. Explain how increased rates can improve their water quality or quantity. Make the messaging personal. Customers who understand the importance and cost of upgrading infrastructure will be less likely to experience sticker shock when their bills come in.
Communicating proactively with your stakeholders about the value of water and water infrastructure not only allows the public a front-row seat to the wonderful world of water but empowers them to play an active role in conserving and preserving their water.
Foster Public Trust
Water quality and scarcity issues across the globe frequently make headline news; the public is more alert to water crises than ever before. Additionally, pubic trust in our industry is waning. Only one-third of Americans drink their water straight from the tap, and many perceive bottled water to be a safer option.
Transparency is the first step to building public trust. Water quality reports should be easily available on utility, city, and district websites. Post agendas and minutes to all open meetings. Include the public in the decision-making process early on and often. If you are faced with a water main break or other crisis, communicate clearly and frequently to maintain the public’s trust.
And don’t be afraid to tell your story and the story of your utility. Believe it or not, you have a very cool job! Water industry professionals help provide their community’s greatest resource. Without abundant clean water, our communities cease to exist. Let customers see how hard you work to provide them with water.
Keep Everyone in the Loop
Whether we are preparing to undertake a massive infrastructure project or asking the public to adopt new restrictions, all utility staff must be on the same page. High-level managers and public information officers aren’t the only employees who get questions from the public about new programs. Meter readers and other “boots on the ground” employees need to be aware of any public information campaigns. Unfortunately, perception is a reality. If your field operations crews aren’t on the same page, they can feel caught off guard or have the “deer in headlights look” when residents ask them questions. Arming your staff with knowledge will gain trust and empower staff to help residents in real-time versus passing them off to someone else.
Whether your top concern for your utility is upgrading aging infrastructure or water conservation and efficiency, fostering relationships and trust with your community can aid and alleviate stress. These relationships are foundations for introducing new ideas, technologies, and projects to your customers. At Master Meter, we’ve seen firsthand the value of relationships when it comes to implementing smart water solutions. When customers trust their utilities, they’re willing to invest in smart technology.
With clear, proactive internal and external communication, we can work through our industry’s most pressing challenges in order to continue to provide the essential resource our customers rely on: water. Let’s make 2020 the year—or better yet, the decade—of communication.