Our review of Utility Week’s Water Customer Conference

6th February 2017 11:25

This blog was written by Alex McCluckie, Senior Research Manager

The 5th annual Utility Week Water Customer Conference took place on the 18th January and Alex McCluckie, one of our Senior Research Managers who specialises in the sector, was there taking in all it had to offer. Here are his key musings from the day-long event…

“As I boarded the 7.08 down to Birmingham New Street for this year’s conference, I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing first-hand whether or not Ofwat’s mantra for this price review, that current and future customers should be being placed at the heart of the way companies run their businesses, was truly an ethos being embedded in water companies’ philosophies. Encouragingly, it didn’t take me long upon arrival to find out that this customer engagement ‘call to arms’ was a theme that was deeply ingrained throughout this year’s conference.Our review of Utility Week’s Water Customer Conference

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I criss-crossed across non-household and domestic conference streams throughout the day and whilst I would love nothing more than to give my thoughts on it all, space limitations mean I must find a theme of my own and so what better theme to go with than: the customer, and in doing so, two fascinating presentations from the Chair of Thames Water’s CCG, Anna Heal and the Head of Customer Contact at Severn Trent Water, Hilary Bennett immediately spring to mind.

Customer trust: So superficially simple, so multi-faceted and complex

Anna’s talk – entitled Building and retaining customer trust - struck a particular chord with me as it was only a few weeks ago that I was presenting at one WaSC’s latest CCG meeting on some resilience research we had been conducting for PR19. I am looking at a chart I created as I write this article, which highlighted just how multi-faceted and implicit ‘trust’ is, sentiments that came through strongly in her talk. 

Now from an agency’s and research practitioner’s perspective it was hugely encouraging to see Anna expound on the benefits of going deeper! I have read many reports over the past few years and have heard first hand in my own focus groups and deliberative workshops that what customers - both domestic and non-household, although the latter is certainly more nuanced - want is superficially simple – clean, safe drinking water that comes out of the taps and toilets that do the ‘right thing’. Now as Anna quite rightly says, people have to be pushed quite hard in order to go much deeper than that. Indeed, trust - a key theme of Anna’s talk - is largely (yet superficially) driven by a continuous and reliable service, with those who deem trust to be lacking often being those who have had a poor service experience in terms of either ongoing problems with their water/sewerage or poor service from customer services. But, given the emphasis that Ofwat has placed on the customer for this price review, are we not doing them a disservice if we simply stop there? Of course we are! There are any number of unspoken expectations hidden amongst the act of just turning the tap on; water quality, pressure, colour, taste, smell, speed of resolution to any occurring problems – the list goes on. So, to the market research industry, we say get teasing! And to the water industry, we say encourage! Encourage agencies to get innovative in their attempts to go deeper! We need to work together to tease out the implicit, the unarticulated because there simply aren’t any points of comparison in the domestic market and few in the non-household market (albeit, not for long!) meaning that implicit expectations and the interpretation of such expectations are vital to fully understand.

Similarly, research and business planning are not the only domains in which the customer is and deserves to be put first. Hilary Bennett demonstrated how Severn Trent’s simple strategy of “just listening” to customers led them to trial new digital channels of communication and their impact was clear for all to see. In a fascinating tale of a customer going through a gender reassignment process we were told how they had contacted STW through a mode of communication that they felt comfortable with in order to find out how they could change their details. Not feeling comfortable doing so via traditional means (i.e. telephone), they were able to opt for a web chat instead – a functionality not available only a few years ago.

Even when taking a step back from the direct contact with customers that we as a research agency are involved in on a day-to-day basis, it was pleasing to see the knowledge sharing taking place in the run up to the NHH market opening this year. The lessons shared by Johanna Dow, Business Stream’s CEO, from their own experiences ‘north of the border’ and how the deregulation of the Scottish market (and indeed other retail markets too!) can be seen as learning platforms. The message being that other companies can use this prior knowledge, come April when the market opens, to position themselves in a way their customers feel is transparent, attractive and right for them and their business’s needs.

And so to close I return to the mantra that started this article and ask again, why should you include customers in your planning processes? Well, yes, it is the right thing to do and following on from the step change experienced at PR14, Ofwat has placed the customer smack bang in the middle of the planning process. But crucially, by doing so we will engender and build trust throughout the industry. We will empower water companies and help them provide great customer service and services as a whole and we will empower customers to have their voices heard, listened to and acted upon.

Taken together, through extensive research we will be able to develop a very clear understanding of what domestic and non-household customers want which will ultimately help mould various business plans and investment decisions running into PR19 and we, at DJS Research look forward to helping all of our current and future partners in the industry to build business plans that have the voice, wants and needs of the customer firmly at their hearts.”

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© DJS Research 2017