Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conference

30th January 2018 09:39

Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conference

Boarding the 6.56 from Macclesfield to Birmingham for this year’s water customer conference, I must say, I was filled with anticipation and intrigue of what was to come. Knowing that the first theme of the day was ‘preparing for change’, it was actually pleasing to hear that one thing will remain – the emphasis on the customer, as John Russell reinforced the view that customers will remain at the very heart of Ofwat’s on-going agenda.

It wasn’t all reflection from John however, as he also looked beyond SIM and towards the new Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conferencemeasures of residential customer experience and satisfaction (C-MeX and D-MeX), which will link financial incentives to best performance. How the pilots of these measures go later this year is something that will be of particular interest, given the key metrics that are to be included are still up for debate and as one fellow attendee noted, there is plenty of debate to be had as to whether certain measures (such as NPS) are even appropriate. I can’t help but feel as though this topic could have been a session in itself. 

On a related note, it was very interesting to hear from Jo Causon, the CEO of the Institute of Customer Services who, amongst other things, gave a fascinating overview of both why customer service matters (the fact that £28bn was lost to the UK economy due to poor customer service last year was a particularly sobering statistic), as well as how the utilities sector is performing with regards to customer satisfaction in comparison to a range of other sectors – spoiler alert, we’re improving!

This fed nicely into a couple of really good (and energetic!) talks by Sarah Bentley (Severn Trent) and Louise Beardmore (United Utilities), both of whom brought their own unique style to the podium.

Sarah, engagingly championed the notion that customers are neither “online” nor “offline” and they certainly don’t have “opening hours”, meaning that we have got to stop compartmentalising them as such. Therefore, reinforcing the notion that multi-channel communications are a must!

Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conference

Echoing this notion was Louise, who brought another level of enthusiasm to the stage and made sure everyone who left understood that perceptions of service are not driven by a water company (unless you move across region), but by what happens in customers’ lives every single day. One can’t help but feel as though ensuring that all channels are flexible enough to engage with customers in an effective, efficient and above all, natural way, is something that requires particular attention and review.

Now in the name of full disclosure, I attended the domestic stream so my views will be coloured by this side of the conference’s coverage but in my mind, it was certainly a great stream to have attended.

One aspect that I had particular ‘affinity’ for was when Teresa Perchard, Chair of Affinity Water’s CCG stepped on stage to talk CCGs, or “the piece of grit that will create your oyster,” to borrow her turn of phrase. Any research supplier out there that works in the industry will have been exposed to the all-important Customer Challenge Group at one point or another, and whilst I could go on about their importance, I think the quality of companies’ customer engagement is in safe hands if this analogy is upheld.  

Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conference

A topic that is particularly close to DJS Research’s heart is that of vulnerability, as we do a lot of work in this area and recently presented on the topic at the last Market Research Society Utilities conference. A quick tour through affordability, vulnerability and customer segmentation, resulted in a question from Tony Smith (CEO of CCWater): “Is it safe to use a birthing pool during a cryptosporidium outbreak?” Now if that isn’t the clearest example of just how dynamic the concept of vulnerability can be, I don’t know what is! The point being there is that a lot more needs to be done to understand that this is a complex and fluid area that needs to be treated as such.

Towards the close of the day Jo Osborn from South East Water gave a fascinating talk around how they have been applying insights from behavioural sciences to encourage behaviour change in relation to water efficiency. In a broader sense, behavioural science is a field that the industry is not taking advantage of enough and as Jo demonstrated in relation to water use, relatively simple tweaks can be scaled up and experimented on to great effect, not to mention providing an exciting opportunity to test various feedback interventions – the industry should take note!

The conference was summed up nicely by Dwr Cymru Welsh Water’s Alun Shurmer, who gave a stark reminder of the importance of trust - both in the industry (which is often seen as invisible) and against the backdrop of falling levels of trust around the world.

Reflections, projections and watery proclamations: A review of the 2018 Utility Week Water Customer conference

It is this that left the final imprint in my mind of where the industry is at. It seems that we are on a steadily improving footing and certainly one that is heading in the right direction. There is however, plenty of work to be done and opportunities to grab to ensure that customer engagement remains a top priority across the industry. Our challenge is to engage with customers in way that is easy, natural and ultimately actionable. Against the backdrop of the PR14 step change in customer engagement, it is certainly an exciting time to be in the industry and I for one am looking forward to helping water companies drive this change forward! 

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