Give customers what they want: Timely, transparent answers to their questions
No industry is exempt in today’s customer-driven world. Customers want to know everything that affects them, whether it’s groceries, electronics, home goods or anything else. That goes for utilities, too, but they’ve got some work to do.
Until very recently, the primary means for many utilities to communicate was through billing statements and some of them judged success by how little they were in the news. Water is no exception, and perhaps might be lagging further behind. Water scarcity, coupled with escalating water rates, have focused public attention on water utilities. Customers expect timely, transparent and truthful communications from those that serve them. And they view social media channels like Facebook and Twitter as primary conduits for that information.
What can we do?
Every customer interaction provides a communications opportunity that helps build the utility’s brand and reputation. The key to smart, efficient use of water is timely, transparent communications. That means taking advantage of technology because data-driven water utilities will arm themselves, their staffs and their customers with the ability to benchmark their water use and improve on it.
ON the drinking water side, you can tap commercial solutions like these for your utility:
For watersheds, wastewater and collection systems, there are real-time monitoring systems and open data portals:
- California Data Collaborative
- DC Water’s Open Data Portal
- Real-time collection system monitoring via SmartCover Systems
- USGS Open Water Data Initiative, a collaboration with the Federal Geographic Data Committee and the Open Water Data Initiative.
What about social media?
Social media really does work as a conduit to customers, but not everyone is taking advantage. For example, recent research from the Water Research Foundation revealed that 65 percent of major metro utilities, 45 percent of mid-sized utilities and less than a third of small utilities use social media. And the most active utility on social media reports that it has connected with just 3.5 percent of its residents through social channels.
Why so small? WRF’s shows that most customers are not receiving what they want on social media. Customer surveys have told us that the utilities post too often on environmental accomplishments, public events and utility employee announcements. What the customers want, and need, is to hear about crisis communications, service updates, construction and traffic updates, environmental tips, offers and incentives, and plumbing tips, offers and incentives. They don’t care who won “employee of the month.”
I am a big believer in having S.M.A.R.T. goals for projects: Your goals must be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-based. Whether you’ve just hired a marketer for your utility or are migrating from manual bill payment to online bill payment, the objectives for your communications program should demonstrate your ability to move people in the direction you want them to go.
Take advantage of the next NACWA’s StratComm Workshop to expose your team to best practices and peer-to-peer training. Then, identify two to three action steps that can advance your organization. If you’re not communicating at all, put up a web page as soon as possible with answers to the most frequently asked questions at your utility. Then, add a screen shot of that Web site and the URL (web address) as an insert in the billing statement. If you’re communicating with clip art, consider adding some real photos and videos of people in your community, so people connect at a more personal and emotional level, and invite them to share their experiences with water.
Whatever you do, have a crisis or contingency plan. The crisis you might anticipate is never the one you will get, but you can map out a communications strategy and a notification process that will enable you to update stakeholders in a timely manner and ensure your crisis doesn’t turn into a disaster. Stop the leak before it becomes a deluge.
There are two ways to engage your customers on an emotional level, said StratComm keynote speaker Richard Levick, Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a Washington, DC-based strategic communications and public affairs firm:
- Fear, as in Flint, Mich. and
- Hope, as the American Municipal Sewerage Association showed by changing its name to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies
Our choice of words or messages will either address our customers’ fears or inspire hope. In thinking about how utilities communicate, Levick also suggests a change in the way water providers view their role. “You are not utilities,” he said. “You are heroes – delivering (life sustaining) clean water every day.”
Nice thought. Let’s do it!