Water utilities are natural monopolies and therefore operate in a highly regulated environment. One of the cornerstones of all regulatory frameworks is performance measurement. Most existing systems are, however, merely lists of performance measures. These measures are categorised, but there is no underlying theory on how these relate to each other. These existing systems also focus mainly on performance from the utility’s perspective, with limited focus on the customer’s view of performance.
I am currently working on two different aspects of service quality in water utilities. For my employer, I have developed a Water System Performance Index to communicate performance to boards and senior management better. For my dissertation, I am looking at how customers view service quality of utilities. These two projects started separately from each other until it dawned on me that they form part of the same broader view of service quality in utilities.
Towards a Service Quality Model for Water Utilities
The quality of a service can be viewed from two sides from the utility’s and the customer’s perspective. In marketing terms, this is called intrinsic an extrinsic quality.
These two perspectives apply to the two types of services offered by water utilities: core services and supplementary services. Core service relates to the physical provision of water, and supplementary services are all other activities that enable or enhance the core service, such as information provision and billing. The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic quality for core services also relates to the difference between safe and good water I wrote about earlier.
The model gives us four areas to measure quality: intrinsic and extrinsic technical quality and intrinsic and extrinsic functional quality.
Intrinsic quality in core services can be measured using the traditional methods in the monitoring of water systems. This distinction gives us a view of how the water system intrinsically operates. Water quality parameters, pressure data and supply continuity are the most common parameters. The intrinsic quality of supplementary services is measured using a range of customer service metrics, such as the percentage of calls answered within a specified period.
In this service quality model, the perspective of the customer has equal weight to the perspective of the utility manager. The perspective of the customer usually comes to us via two channels, occasional surveys or complaints.
The Service Quality Model
This service quality model combines the views of the utility professional with the perspectives of the customers. Although they often seem incommensurable and even paradoxical, service quality in utilities cannot be adequately described by focusing on only one of these perspectives.
This model is only a sketch of the system under development. I am currently collecting data to test some of the assumptions on which this model is based and aim to publish the completed version next year.