J.D. Power's Andrew Heath Describes the State of Customer Experience in the Water Utility Industry; There is Plenty of Room for Improvement

The water utility industry has an opportunity to engage more effectively with their customers by using digital channels of communication that enable self-service and establish more intimate relationships with rate-payers, says Andrew Heath, senior director for the utility practice at J.D. Power, in a podcast interview for journalists.

This is the core conclusion of J.D. Power's most recent survey of the utility industry to determine the state of customer experience in this critical sector of the economy. While the survey found that billing and payment services have improved significantly according to consumers who responded to the survey, it is still clear that water utilities are failing to meet customers growing expectations for customer service.

Podcast Interview with Andrew Heath

While most utilities are regulated and tariff-based -- prices are fixed and set very often by public utility commissions -- a failure to pay attention to customer experience management risks losing good will with consumers when the time comes to raise capital to fund plant improvements.

"Water utilities are failing to match innovations in customer service that are being implemented by other industries that are boosting the overall expectations of consumers," says Heath.

"My colleagues who look at other industries are constantly observing how customers' expectations keep rising based on the interactions they have with retailers and other product and service providers," he says.

"Water utilities are the lowest performers across all those industries, and there has been a further decline over the last 12 months in the service provided when customers reach out on the phone or via the web site to ask a question or get information from their water utility," he adds.

Heath says customers would much rather use digital channels than talk directly to a person, and with other industries providing more options to enable customers to self-service, water utilities need to do the same.

"There are some water utilities performing much better than average and a few performing much lower, but when we look at the average scores across the US, there is a lot of room for improvement. The water industry is just not keeping up with other industries," says Heath.

The industry has an opportunity to let customers know what is going on and what utilities are doing to improve services. Water conservation is a particularly effective topic for customer engagement.

"Everyone across the nation seems interested in conservation. Our results show that consumers reward water utilities when they provide support around this issue. Water utilities should be thinking about what can be done to encourage customers to be aware of conservation. Even in areas where there is no shortage of water, customers still respond well to those actions," explains Heath.

Crisis Communication

Communication in times of crisis is an area in which the water industry could learn from gas and electric utilities.

"We completed the survey during the hurricanes in the South East at the end of 2017. We were in a position to see how the response to these dramatic events varied across the different utility industries,"Heath says.

"Some industries — electric utilities in particular — had clearly learned lessons from previous storms and put a lot of effort into telling people as much as they could about when power would be restored and what was being done to restore power. That was definitely an area where there was room for improvement across the water industry."