Collaborative competition amongst water companies: an oxymoron or an achievable ambition?

13th February 2020 11:11

By Alex McCluckie, Associate Director. Email Alex

After the submission of their PR19 Business Plans and having gotten through the pre-election uncertainty, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the water sector is now breathing a collective sigh of relief, reclining in their regulatory-free arm chairs and ready to take a long rejuvenating rest.

Oh, how misleading perceptions can be…

Over the past few months I have been touring the Conference circuit, keenly listening to and presenting myself on some of the latest goings-on within the sector. If there is one thing that has been abundantly clear from these mind-expanding few months, it is that the sector is doing anything but taking a rest!

Whilst the insights and approaches shared from Conference to Conference have been brilliant to see, what I was keenly aware of as I have digested the various presentations was that all of the research showcased had taken place in a pre C-MeX world; one in which customer experience didn’t carry the kinds of incentives and penalties that, come April, they soon will.

In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what the impact of incentivising customer experience will be on the customer insight activities of companies. Innovation and the pushing of boundaries will surely follow, but will such a freely sharing spirit be as apparent at Conferences to come? Indeed, maybe an even more pressing question is; how will the impact of such incentivisation play out in an industry where, due to its very structure, is always going to possess a degree of tension between competing to be at the top of the pile and working together on what can be perceived to be a significant number of more common challenges?

A recent steer has been given by Ofwat supremo, Rachel Fletcher who, in a recent interview with British Water’s CEO Lila Thompson, suggested that there is a natural distinction to be made between those challenges facing the sector that require competition and those which represent no point in working separately on; with leakage, water poverty, the net zero agenda and plastics being her go-to examples. Indeed, it is those issues which fundamentally threaten future water supplies or those things that are going to go to the heart of the sector’s legitimacy that Fletcher claims, require a more collaborative framework to be adhered to if the sector as a whole is to succeed.

When we talk about customer engagement, it is this standpoint that I have been hoping to see articulated for some time, a halfway house if you will that I have termed “collaborative competition”. A place that carves up the issues at hand and which, rather than having companies going completely tribal, instead seeks to strike a balance between those issues which do indeed go to the heart of the sector and those that naturally allow for some competition.

Adopting this philosophy is something that I believe should and indeed will, be maintained and taken forward to keep pushing the boundaries of customer engagement – something that it is essential the industry starts to see as an ongoing and integral part of business as usual operations and not a mad dash to-do list once a Business Plan submission starts to loom large on the horizon.

Listening to the many podium speakers that I have of late, from my perspective it certainly seems as though the appetite is there for more “collaborative competition” and it is an opportunity to really start to take this sector to places as yet uncharted, before proudly sharing the steps that have been taken and the insights that have been gathered.

So, here is my rallying call to companies and insight agencies alike, let’s not let this new focus on league tables force companies to experiment ‘in secret’ by the time the next Conference rolls around because I have a feeling that things are about to get (even more) interesting!

Want to collaborate? Or even have a competing view? Drop me an email here 

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