As PR19 customer engagement draws to a close, our reflections

8th August 2018 09:07

Written by Alex McCluckie, Associate Director. Email Alex here

Well, what a time it has been! With business plan submissions now looming large on the not too distant horizon, it doesn’t feel all that long ago that the PR19-related customer engagement was first getting underway.

From understanding levels of water use to carrying out social tariff surveys. From deliberative workshops into metering to conducting focus groups discussing resilience; if only I could trace for you on a map where our customer engagement has taken us over the past few years it would quickly become apparent that we truly have covered the length and breadth of the country!

Casting my mind back to the beginnings of our PR19 journey I remember thinking how pleasing it was to hear Cathryn Ross (still heading up Ofwat at the time) making it clear that off the back of the step change in customer engagement witnessed during PR14, this wasn’t only set to continue into PR19 and beyond, but to flourish.

I am glad to say that this sentiment has certainly been upheld by the many water companies, retailers and regulatory bodies that we have been working with over the past few months.

Indeed, now that many of our water company clients are finishing up their business plan acceptability testing, it is encouraging to look back over the journey we have undertaken with them leading up to this crucial point and maybe reflecting on a few key areas that we’ve seen play an important role in this price review (although due to space limitations, I stress this is just a few key areas!).

I think a first observation I’ve made during this price review is that the customers that I have been engaging with have certainly been placed at the heart of the development of their water companies’ business plans.

 

There really has been a commitment made to amassing a deep understanding of customers’ current and future behaviours, needs and priorities. I must stress as well that I don’t just mean amongst the ‘typical customer’ either but across the whole spectrum of customer segments. One of the great sources of variety (and challenge!) for me when designing my client’s engagement activities is that each and every water company has their own diverse customer base!

That is why we have been conducting in-depth interviews with Yorkshire’s Hindu community to understand their ritual bathing practices in rivers and including the views of first-generation, Urdu and Punjabi speakers in Birmingham towards the acceptability of their suppliers proposed plans. Suffice to say, we have seen a great emphasis placed on inclusivity in all of our research this price review – something my colleague Ali Sims demonstrated at the 2017 MRS Utilities Conference where she showed just how nuanced the issue of vulnerability is whilst also highlighting the key role customer insight can play in ensuring that sufficient safeguards and practices are in place to support vulnerable customers.

Something else we’ve seen great demand for this price review is deliberative-style working. In the recent past, there has been a realisation that whilst listening to customers is important, it is sometimes just as important to educate them too! Most encouraging here has been the consistency with which I have had participants come up to me – sometimes after a three-hour deliberative session – and say to me how much they have enjoyed it and how interesting they’ve found the topics discussed. Just see for yourself from some of these anonymised comments below that came following a number of deliberative events:

  • I can’t believe how much I have enjoyed speaking for 3 hours about water meters!
  • It’s really good that water companies are going out of their way to do these sessions, I’ve really enjoyed it
  • Well, I thought this was going to be a long evening but that was really interesting. It was actually fun!

 

Giving customer engagement a more modern spin, firstly through the incorporation of video outputs and secondly through the incorporation of the latest learnings from behavioural science is also something that we’ve seen more. We have been studying human beings’ natural mental biases and in conjunction with Garry Sanderson, a behavioural scientist from Visualyze Solutions, have been using these to design better and more valid engagement practices across topics such as asset health, resilience and the notion of intergenerational fairness when it comes to investment planning. Indeed, the two of us presented at the latest Twenty65 conference where we made the case for greater awareness and application of behavioural science in the water industry, both in customer engagement and operationally within organisations themselves. We think this is going to be a real area that we will all see being incorporated across the industry in the near future.

And so it is then, that whilst Ofwat’s own reflections on PR19 will be interesting to pour over, it feels as though this price review has been a success from a customer engagement standpoint. What’s more, it leaves me with a great deal of optimism about the post-PR19 future and after combing back through some transcripts from my qualitative sessions it just goes to show how customers do in fact enjoy and value being consulted. Here’s to an equally customer centric post price review period – we’re looking forward to helping you all in this process!

 

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