Last month, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) passed the presidential gavel to its new leader, Brenda Lennox. During AWWA’s annual conference in Philadelphia, I had an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Lennox and discuss her top priorities for the organization.
Coming from a background in customer service and management, Lennox places enormous importance on the water utility workforce and those on the front line serving customers on a daily basis. “I come from a non-traditional background,” she said, “so, I think that I can bring a different flavor, if you will, to the association in regards to addressing workforce needs.”
As the seasoned professionals in the water industry begin to retire, Lennox recognizes the need to “find a bigger talent pool.” The key to recruiting young professionals and retaining them in this business, she believes, is to tell the water utility story well. Lennox noted that in the opening general session at ACE 2017, a recurring comment was how noble the water profession is “because we protect drinking water, we protect public health and provide safe drinking water.” She believes that is something that will appeal to young professionals. “They like to make a difference,” she observed. “We need to tell our story about what our professionals do every day in the water and wastewater business.”
The relationship between water utilities and their customers is critical, and while many utilities have made great strides in nurturing that relationship, there is always room for improvement, said Lennox, “especially when you have small utilities with personnel who wear many different hats - and perhaps oftentimes are stretched too thin.” She sees a huge opportunity here for education. “Our customers are our lifeblood,” she said, “and you don’t get a ‘do over’ for a first impression, so I think we need to make sure that our employees are trained and have the right tools.”
Water utility customers need to trust the credibility of their utilities, she noted, and they need to know “that we are good stewards of their money. I think we need to engage our customers early and often, and have a partnership with them so that, heaven forbid, when something bad does happen, they already know who we are, and they trust that we are competent to do our jobs.”
One thing that’s making a major impact on how water utilities communicate with their customers is social media, she noted. “We’re in a different world,” she said, “and we have to be diligent about providing [social media] training.”
In today’s social media-driven environment, with enhanced communication comes much scrutiny. “We are public servants and so we have to understand that we are under the microscope all the time,” said Lennox. “We should have visibility in our communities and it all needs to be positive interactions.”
Still, the usefulness of social media is undeniable, particularly if you need to reach a large audience quickly. “I worked at a water utility, Tualatin Valley Water District, for 26 years and we had about 50,000 connections. In my call center, I only had maybe five to seven customer service reps at any given time.” In the event of an emergency, Lennox noted that it would be virtually impossible to contact the entire customer base in a timely manner. “So today,” she said, “social media tools or other avenues or websites where you can provide information for those customers is really key.”
To watch the full interview with Brenda Lennox, please visit WaterWorldTV at www.waterworld.com.