'Voice of customer' is critical for building support for water infrastructure initiatives

With the myriad challenges facing our nation's water utilities - aging infrastructure, regulatory burdens, climate change - we can sometimes lose sight of the customer at the other end of the tap.

With the myriad challenges facing our nation’s water utilities - aging infrastructure, regulatory burdens, climate change - we can sometimes lose sight of the customer at the other end of the tap. But a new report from J.D. Power serves as a powerful reminder that a strong utility-customer relationship is critical for building the support water utilities need in order to make necessary capital investments in their systems.

The 2017 Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study took an in-depth look at how residential water customers feel about their utilities. “We wanted to understand what customers’ views were about their water utility,” said Andrew Heath, senior director of the utility practice at J.D. Power. “To do that, we reached out to over 40,000 residential water utility customers across the nation, representing over a hundred million customers in total, and asked them a range of questions regarding their interaction with their water utility.”

When asked why the study was conducted, Heath noted the current, significant need for large investment in water infrastructure. “For water utilities to be able to make that investment, getting the backing of their customers is going to be key,” he said. “So, understanding the voice of customer will be a key part to help water utilities achieve the improvements they need.”

The study looked at six factors: delivery; price; conservation; billing and payment; communications; and customer service. Among some of the key findings, the research revealed that frequent communication maximizes customer satisfaction. Conversely - as you might expect - water quality problems such as taste and odor issues take a significant toll on that relationship.

The study underscored the importance of basic service. “If you look at what drives overall satisfaction, almost half of it is related to the core product, the drinking water itself,” said Heath. Specifically, customers are most concerned about reliability, water quality, and price.

“The other half is associated with how the utility engages with customers, things like the billing and payment process, levels of communication, activities regarding conservation, and then finally, things such as customer service, where the customer is either on the phone or visiting the utility website to get an answer to a question,” he added.

It’s interesting to note that results from the 2017 survey are nearly identical to last year’s findings - despite the negative media attention around the water crisis in Flint, Mich. “That leads us to believe that, in general, water satisfaction for residential customers is relatively stable,” he said. But if you compare the best-performing water utilities with those that scored low, there is a marked disparity between them. Although customers may assume water supply is a fairly standard service, Heath said, “clearly there are large differences across the nation that are reported by customers associated with the water they drink and also the service they get from their water utility.”

Some organizations are doing a great job keeping customers satisfied, he observed. “Others could learn from those organizations and really focus on areas where they need to improve performance to meet customers’ expectations.”

If you’d like to learn more about the study, please visit jdpower.com. Click on “Ratings by Industry” to navigate to the Utilities category.

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