The Engineering-Marketing Interface in Water Utilities

Providing reticulated water services requires a high level of investment in technology to be able to provide a safe and reliable supply. As such, the industry is dominated by professionals with engineering qualifications who develop and maintain the infrastructure required to deliver core services. Engineers are often wrapped in stereotypes, highly focused on the technical task at hand but lacking marketing skills. However, in its purest essence engineering and marketing complement each other. In the words of marketing professors Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy: “marketing is customer satisfaction engineering”.

In the delivery of water services, the attitudes and actions of engineers towards customer service are important as this directly impacts on the experience of customers. Engineers are mainly employed in ‘back-stage’ roles and determine how the core services are delivered to customers, with ‘front-stage’ customer service staff managing support services, such as complaints handling and billing. A water utility is in this respect much like an amusement park: invisible staff members make all the rides happen, while the staff that interact with customers enhance the experience. The biggest difference between an amusement park and a water utility is that most customers never meet their service provider in person.

The development of an effective interface between engineering and customer functions within an organisation is considered vital for providing customers a high level of service. The importance of good relationships between customer service and engineering personnel is acknowledged in both marketing and engineering literature. Several sources of the conflict between these two functions have been identified. Polarisation of behaviour through a tension between standardisation and customisation and stereotyping of personality traits of the two professional fields are often mentioned. Engineers and marketers have different educational backgrounds and occupy different ‘thought-worlds’.

To test whether such differences between customer service and engineering employees exists in water utilities a pilot study was conducted with an Australian water utility. Employees were asked a series of questions about the relationship between engineering and service functions.

The Engineering-Marketing Interface

The results of this pilot into the Engineering-Marketing Interface study reveal a small, but statistically significant difference between the views of employees with engineering education and those without engineering education. Engineers viewed the potential for tension between customer service and engineering functions as lower than those without engineering qualification. This was found to be the case for all items in the survey, except for the statement that “all engineers should know something about customer service”, which found strong agreement among all respondents. In other words, engineers perceived the tension between customer service and engineering functions as less important than other employees did. This result was corroborated by another part of the survey which revealed engineers having a lower level of empathy with customers than other staff.

In subsequent work into the Engineering-Marketing Interface, these findings will be related to the experiences of customers to investigate whether there is indeed a correlation between the attitudes of engineers and customer experience. To complete this research project we are looking for water utilities in the USA and the United Kingdom to participate in this project.

Originally published in the IWA blog on 17 July 2013.