By Pete Antoniewicz
There have been a number of surveys on water-utility customer satisfaction over the past few decades and, unfortunately, the news tends to be less encouraging than it should be. Is it safe to chalk up those responses to personal tastes or preferences, or is it time to do something about turning them around before it’s too late? Here are some resources to consider.
Take Stock By The Numbers
While the physical compositions of local surface-water or groundwater sources can place a wide range of demands on treatment strategies, utilities also need to be concerned about dealing with a variety of influences that can affect the opinions and behaviors of their paying customers. Here are just some examples that might factor into water-utility concerns and plans to deal with them:
- Obvious Problems. This recent Consumer Reports story is just one of the latest examples of how water utility customers are taking control of their own health by refusing to drink utility-supplied water coming from their taps. While this is an extreme case, it has roots in both problematic infrastructure and environmental pollution — common issues for many water utilities across the U.S. Unfortunately, such stories can also damage consumer perceptions in areas far beyond this particular geographic location.
- Expressed Concerns. Even if a local utility is unable to conduct its own statistically valid survey among its customer base, it makes sense to pay attention to polls conducted in other areas or nationwide.
- Gallup Research findings show that 63 percent of Americans worry ‘a great deal’ about drinking-water pollution and nearly as many worry a great deal about source water pollution. These percentages skew even higher among low-income and minority respondents. Pollution has remained the highest environmental concern in a list of six survey topics for more than a quarter of a century.
- WaterPolls.org provides links to a cross-section of water-related research that can also be of value to public water utilities for a variety of categories and topics.
- Clouded Perceptions. Unfortunately, a wide range of unfavorable or misleading research and publicity is available to utility customers. It is important for utilities to take note and take action to prepare their responses accordingly.
- The results are even worse in an AP-GfK water poll indicating that only 21 percent of respondents drink tap water exclusively, as compared to 37 percent favoring bottled water, 32 percent favoring filtered water, and 10 percent being flexible among the three options.
Leverage Research Findings To Make Positive Impacts
If caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is the call to action for customers, then caveat venditor (let the vendor beware) should be the call to action for utilities faced with declining consumer confidence and declining water consumption. Unfortunately, customers who do not already drink tap water tend to rate their utilities about 7 percent lower than customers who do. This can have negative repercussions down the road in terms of customer complaints or resistance to desperately needed rate increases. Taking the right steps to respond to user concerns about environmental and water-quality issues and using good, consistent, and positive communication to educate them about utility efforts and successes can go a long way toward building more favorable opinions.
- Another favorable trend emanating from the previously cited J.D. Power survey shows that proactive communication plays an important role in improving overall satisfaction scores. It shows that customers who remember receiving four or more proactive communication efforts (phone call, text, email, or social media) rate their satisfaction as being 16 percent higher than that of customers who do not recall receiving such messages. And the good news is that affordable digital communication (websites and mobile apps) yields a higher rate of satisfaction (7.8 out of 10) than customers using phone communications only (7.5) and customers having no interaction at all (7.1)
- Do not underestimate the value of communicating the U.S. EPA-mandated Consumer Confidence Report for raising customer satisfaction. One of the key findings in the J.D. Power survey showed that while only a minority of customers surveyed recalled seeing their CCR (40 percent), the majority of those who did (80 percent) report that they drink their tap water. Make sure utility customers get multiple opportunities to see that report — online, via social media, publicity, and inserted in monthly billing.
- This poll conducted by the Value Of Water Coalition indicates that American consumers recognize the need for water infrastructure improvements and are more inclined to pay extra for their water if they are properly informed about those issues. That’s yet another reason for maintaining regular channels of communication on factors important to utility customers.
Raise The Bar On Problem-Solving
Learning from industry peers and seeking out positive stories about successes with local water challenges can help water utilities challenge these disheartening trends. Despite the discouraging feedback, there are still options for utilities to be successful at solving taste and odor problems related to chlorine or major geological challenges such as geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) or manganese in their pursuit of the perfect glass of water. Consider sharing tips with nearby utilities that have performed well in industry taste tests at recent AWWA events in 2017, 2018, and 2019 or following the lead of DC Water in tackling the issue head-on.
Finally, better use of data and analytics can also help water utilities in improving customer perceptions. Utilities can learn to use such information to be more successful at enhancing consumer experiences through careful communications that are timely, targeted, and topical.