Customer perception of water utilities | Smart Utilities 2013 Conference

I have been asked to facilitate a roundtable discussion on customer perception of water utilities at the Smart Utilities 2013 Conference in Melbourne. These are some thoughts I gathered to help facilitating this discussion.

Water utilities don’t need to be customer focused

Engineers and scientists in water companies often believe that the level of service quality experienced by customers is only governed by legislation and technical standards. They  are subject matter experts and there is thus no need to ask the customer what they want. One engineer expressed this view succinctly on a LinkedIn forum (used with permission):

You have to deliver good quality services, but I don’t get the concept that the customer is best placed to decide what those services are. They know they need pressure and they know if they don’t have water out of their tap, but beyond that, they have only a small understanding of the what is required to run a safe and efficient water supply system.

Political correctness aside, are these professionals perhaps correct? Will customers be happy as long as clean water runs from their tap every single time they open the tap?

Water Utilities are like amusement parks

Water utilities are a low contact service provider with most services delivered at ‘arm’s length’ by technical staff. Water utilities are in some ways just like an amusement park: technical staff work in the background to ensure that the services can be delivered flawlessly while customer service teams meet face to face with customers. The actual service delivery occurs ‘backstage’ with supplementary service done ‘front stage’. The relationship between the technical and customer service staff—the engineering-marketing nexus. is very important to make it work. Preliminary results of my research shows that there are tension points between the two groups.

Another good reason to compare water utilities with amusement parks (Wet ‘n’ Wild) comes to mind) is that water utilities don’t sell products, they sell experiences. The experience of bathing your child, growing an abundant garden, cooking a great meal goes far beyond water as a physical product in as much the experience of an amusement park is not about the technical specifications of the water.

The water quality paradox

Even though customers are provided with perfectly safe water that meets all requirements, this does not guarantee satisfaction. More formally, water quality is not a sufficient condition for customer satisfaction. For example, chlorine is added to water to make it safe, but many customers complain about the gustatory properties of the water.

My own research shows that perception of water quality is influenced by the level of financial hardship they experience. This is in line with the Grönroos model for service quality which states that service quality is influenced by company image. Other research, for example shows that the taste of water is influenced by the material the cup it is consumed from. There are thus influences, outside of the chemical composition of tap water that influence customer experience.

Customers don’t care much about tap water

Tap water services are provided in a natural monopoly and customers don’t have any choice on service provider. In many publications water is considered to be a low involvement service. Involvement is a person’s perceived relevance of a service based on inherent needs, values and interests. Following this definition, it should make tap water a high involvement product. Practical experience shows that customers don’t care much about tap water, as long as it is available without restrictions. My own research shows a clear distinction between the level of cognitive (rational) and affective (emotional) involvement.

Trust is the major currency in tap water services

Perceptions of quality in tap water are related to more than just the chemical parameters of the water itself. It is influenced by many confounding variables. Most importantly, customers want to be able to enjoy they service without having to spend to much time dealing with issues. As utilities are generally non-profit (or may be better non-loss) organisations, trust is the major currency to measure success.

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