The Water Quality Paradox and Perceptions of Service Quality

Every day, thousands of engineers around the world work hard every day to provide potable water quality to their customers thereby keeping cities liveable and preventing disease. They do this work invisible to most people as customers have very simple, but very high expectations of service.

Although in well-managed systems, the chances that somebody does not receive an excellent service through their tap are extremely low, consumer perception of these services is often not as good as engineers would hope for. The reason for this is because there is a paradox in the provision of water services. Operators of drinking water systems are required to comply with local regulatory requirements. Meeting these requirements can, however, lead to a reduction in service quality. For example, adding chlorine is essential to ensure public health in that it destroys micro-organisms. In some communities, however, chlorine is perceived as an unwanted chemical, leading to a reduction in service quality.1 The water quality paradox is one of the main issues faced by water utilities. A case in point is the resistance against adding fluoride to water, such as explained in this video.

One of the main ways people form their perceptions of tap water is through taste. A simple search on “tap water” on Twitter shows that taste is the main concern. The taste of water is, however, influenced not only by the chemical and biological quality of the water itself but also by other circumstances, such as the cup people drink it from.2 It was found that the firmness of a cup in which water is served might affect consumers’ judgments of the water itself.

Water Quality Paradox

The water quality paradox implies that we can not influence the total experience of the service enjoyed by customers as there are always aspects outside the control of the service provider. What at first seems like a paradox is, however, not paradoxical. Water services are like internet services, as they are provided at the customer’s premises and they use their equipment to consume the service. The paradox in water quality is caused by the fact that we cannot control all variables that make up the customer experience. To the customer, however, this is not important, and any service failure will reflect negatively on the service provider.

This problem is one of the issues I am currently researching for my PhD thesis and will soon start collecting data to dig deeper into this issue.


  1. Kot, M., Castleden, H., & Gagnon, G. A. (2011). Unintended consequences of regulating drinking water in rural Canadian communities: Examples from Atlantic Canada. Health & Place, 17(5), 1030–1037. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2011.06.012.
  2. Krishna, A., & Morrin, M. (2008). Does touch affect the taste? The perceptual transfer of product container haptic cues. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 807–818.

One thought on “The Water Quality Paradox and Perceptions of Service Quality

  1. Interesting that the firmness of the cup people drink from affects the taste!! I must admit that I do find drinking from a disposable plastic cup somehow affects the taster – probably just perception.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.