Over the past few years, water utilities have begun to embrace the importance of a unified customer experience strategy – one that involves technological transformation, employee engagement, and process improvements. This customer-centric paradigm shift is primarily driven by changes to regulators focus on customer satisfaction, heightened increase to conservation, and the digital effect to consumer control and the digital customer experience. To maximize customer engagement and long-term sustainable benefits, utilities must proactively equip their employees with the frameworks and channels to engage customers, evaluate new tools and technologies designed to interact with customers, and adapt to ever changing regulatory requirements.
Amidst inevitable workforce turnover (retirements), technological innovation, and operational improvements, water utilities must equip employees with skills designed to interact with and support changing customer preferences. Customers rely on utilities to inform, diagnose, and prescribe, and that means employees must be able to respond to billing questions, program enrollments, and service requests. Utilities are in search of employees who can manage the daily operations, and navigate complex customer inquiries. Moreover, water providers must attract employees capable of addressing customer concerns while simultaneously educating customers about the dynamic water industry – new services, opportunities, and risks. Employees who can consistently provide customers information and data in understandable, and direct way, and encourage them to seek their own answers and solutions will be highly sought after in the coming years.
As advanced metering infrastructure becomes more mainstream, employees are charged with smart data management. Field operations and internal staff members need to acquire skills to accurately comprehend and use mainstream smart water data. The combination of asset management, meter flow, and pressure data will allow utilities to predict infrastructure failure and curtail remediation costs and limit the number of disruptions experienced by customers. These benefits will be realized if and only if customers and utility employees are both adept at analyzing and consuming data.
A unified customer experience strategy requires more than employee engagement. Utilities are beneficiaries of ongoing technological transformation. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools and new digital technologies will change the way utilities interact with customers. Traditional Customer Information Systems (CIS) were simply established to bill the “rate payers” for consumption. The permeation of smart meters and the dynamic nature of 2-way interaction with the customer has opened the need for a more dynamic system to help utilities organize and consolidate customer data. The CRM allows water utilities to track consumption data, meter management data, billing information, and third-party vendor data in one platform. The benefits conferred from a consolidated view include more robust customer journeys, deeper customer insights (loyalty programs, consumption patterns, new service offerings), and discovery of operational inefficiencies.
In addition to CRM, new digital technologies inundate water utilities. While these technologies are less ubiquitous than CRM, each technology confronts a distinct water utility challenge.
- For example, adaptive, dynamic algorithms/processes (collectively represented as machine learning) can be configured to forecast weather patterns and can help increase predictive power (floods, droughts, asset failures).
- Additionally, robotics can be leveraged to evaluate the condition of water assets. Artificial intelligence can be utilized to identify surge patterns. Improvements to predictive maintenance protocols, asset management, and surge protection will translate to several customer benefits via fewer disruptions and increased longevity of the distribution network.
Regulatory policy is another mechanism that can be leveraged to improve customer experience. Regulators should consider rewarding utilities for investments in information technology designed to provide real-time data to consumers and provide peer benchmarks (tracks sustainability, water consumption/efficiency). In a recent study conducted by Greentech Media, utilities ranked with higher customer engagement scores also possessed lower customer cost-to-serve and better regulatory outcomes. While investments in customer engagement and creation of customer performance indicators were correlated to the said benefits, both areas were deemed substandard based on industry reports. This reality represents an opportunity for regulators to consider incentivizing the former (investment) and mandating the later (KPI generation). Once metrics and targets are identified and socialized, water utilities must acclimate to customer experience requirements or risk forgone financial benefits (in the form of rate cases).
By aligning customer experience competence with financial performance, regulators should begin to see improved adoption of customer experience initiatives over time. Employee engagement, technological advancement and the age of digitalization, and regulatory reform represent opportunities to strengthen the customer-utility relationship. Both water utility and its customers will uncover benefits as the industry continues to embrace the customer experience paradigm through more purposeful and data-driven interaction.