Cracking the customer engagement nut

May 1, 2018
The looming threat of ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town has been an eye-opener around the world but also highlights the differences in global water supply.

Utilities around the world are using new methods to increase engagement, from home AI systems to recruiting and training sniffer dogs.

The million dollar question utilities face is how can they increase customer engagement? How can they get people interested in water; a service which, after all has been taken for granted for decades?

The delivery of water services is a tricky one. It can either be highly emotive and divisive at times - take Day Zero in Cape Town or the Flint water crisis in the US. Or it can go unnoticed, idling along the background. There is no real middle ground.

In an effort to increase engagement levels, some utilities are working with home artificial intelligence (AI) technology, such as Amazon’s Echo system. The Northumbrian Water Group believes that home AI systems such as Alexa will be able to say if there is a water supply problem in consumers’ areas, as well as provide water saving advice. Forget the phrase “Alexa, turn on my TV” and instead people may ask “Alexa, how’s my water usage going this month?”

Meanwhile, another UK utility Affinity Water announced that customers can manage their accounts via a new Alexa Skill. The southeast water supplier said customers can also submit a meter reading or find out their latest information by asking the AI system.

Whether people will take advantage of this development is another question. Personally, I’m still dealing with one of my young daughters asking “Alexa, play the Trolls’ soundtrack” on purpose to interrupt any music I’m playing, let alone getting them to ask about water!

Home AI systems to one side, Australian utility Water Corporation has said one of the biggest successes in customer engagement has been recruiting Kep the dog, a spaniel being trained to detect leaks (page 14). As CEO Sue Murphy told me (Leader interview on page eight), people may be wary of politicians, but they instantly trust a dog dressed in utility hi-vis gear. United Utilities is also seeing success with man’s best friend – a dog called Snipe which has so far located leaks two meters underground.

instead people may ask: “alexa, how’s my water usage doing this month?”

The water market can learn a lot from power. The roll-out of smart meters and in-house display units giving people a real-time view of their electricity/gas consumption is well underway in the UK. Water is starting to follow, with utilities such as Anglian Water teaming up with software company advizzo. Automated meter reading data is then used to engage with customers to help reduce water consumption. Meanwhile Southern Water is on the brink of a trial involving retrofitting “readers” to its meters, which sync to a display unit in houses.

Obtaining practical, useful data is going to be the key to cracking the public engagement nut. At the same time, companies now have to tread carefully. With GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) being enforced in May, companies are now being forced to be more careful in how they reach out to their customers. Either way, there is plenty of opportunity in this area and, as a result, I’m sure we’ll see new and exciting industry developments along the way. Enjoy the issue.

About the Author

Tom Freyberg

Tom Freyberg is an experienced environmental journalist, having worked across a variety of business-to-business titles. Since joining Pennwell in 2010, he has been influential in developing international partnerships for the water brand and has overseen digital developments, including 360 degree video case studies. He has interviewed high level figures, including NYSE CEO’s and Environmental Ministers. A known figure in the global water industry, Tom has chaired and spoken at conferences around the world, from Helsinki, to London and Singapore. An English graduate from Exeter University, Tom completed his PMA journalism training in London.

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