utility customers

Lessons Learned from 100 Water Suppliers

By Jeff Lipton
 
100-customers-blog 
WaterSmart just reached a major milestone. We signed our 100th utility partner. It's only a number, and given that there are about 50,000 community water systems in the United States, this accomplishment is, pardon the pun, just a drop in the bucket. What is important is that the WaterSmart team has had the opportunity to learn an amazing amount from these hundred partnerships. We've worked with scores of utility staff and surveyed hundreds of thousands of end-use customers. What has come from all that experience and data are some pretty interesting insights.
Given this milestone, we thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on our journey over the past nine years. We went back and aggregated a large set of survey data and partner feedback to summarize what we've learned on our journey from 1 to 100. We hope these compelling insights form the basis for best practices throughout the industry moving forward. 
 
First of all, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is here to stay. The ability to deploy software to utilities through a web browser provides a whole host of benefits. Utilities no longer need to maintain in-house (or expensive consulting) IT expertise or pay for and maintain server hardware. Cloud solutions 'virtualize' all of these functions at a fraction of the cost, improve data security, provide for remote system access from any device (desktop, tablet, mobile), and allow for easier and faster integration with other business critical systems such as billing, meter data management, work order, rebate tracking, GIS, and more. Also, no more 'upgrading' to the most modern version of a particular software system as upgrades happen transparently in the background - just log-in to your cloud service and find new feature enhancements available!
 
Another clear insight we always suspected, and the data supports, is that customers are nearly always connected and demand higher levels of self-service. Mobile computing devices have become a fixture for nearly ever utility customer in the developed world. 95% of Americans own a mobile device of some kind and smart phone adoption is estimated at 77% of the population. Even older Americans over the age of 65 are getting in on the smart phone revolution. This demographic segment has seen smart phone adoption more than quadruple in the past 5 years and more than 70% of seniors use the internet.
 
This is important because digitally connected end-use customers have greater expectations related to self-service than ever before. Access to consumption information, paperless bills, electronic payments, email and text alerts are commonplace from service providers including electric utilities, cable television providers, internet service providers, and mobile telephony companies. These other service capabilities have increased expectations for water utilities to provide digital self-service for customers to do things such as start or transfer service, make service requests, apply for rebates, find and resolve leaks, and receive notifications for planned service outages.
 
Self-service helps customers save time and reduces support costs for utility staff. Literally everyone benefits, but it does take an investment in the appropriate technology and business processes to realize these benefits. The payback on these investments can be very fast; less than a year in many cases. However, to unlock the value of self-service investments, water suppliers need executive level sponsorship for these changes and staff needs to be prepared to change the way they think about customer service.
 
WaterSmart's customer self-service platform offers all of these capabilities and much more. For example, our Bill Explainer tool walks end-users through their account specific billing and consumption data to identify likely reasons for a high bill. Our Leak Resolution wizard walks users through common sources of leaks inside and outside of the home and provides detailed instructions and videos of how to resolve these irregular usage patterns. Our Group Messenger tool allows water utility staff to digitally communicate highly personalized messages such as boil notices or service outages at scale without resorting to costly and resource intensive door hangers.
 
Some interesting data came out of our digital foraging. The WaterSmart Customer Portal offers a self-service module on the home page, which is titled "I want to...". The top five items that receive clicks from users include:
  • Check for leaks
  • Learn about water use
  • Unusual use alerts
  • Account info
  • Paperless billing
 
This is notable in that end-users are clearly prioritizing information about their water consumption. The typical monthly or bi-monthly bill does not provide this level of granularity. Only with a comprehensive self-service and analytics platform can consumption detail that helps end-users manage their water spend and protect their property from expensive water damage be made available in an actionable manner. 
 
Since checking for leaks is the top priority of WaterSmart end-users, it's interesting to consider some additional data regarding leak alerts. In partnership with our utility customers, we surveyed more than 15,000 end-users who had received automated leak alerts and this is what they told us:
  • 99% of customers want to continue receiving alerts
  • 31% of non-AMI and 54% of AMI customers made aware of a leak for the first time.
  • Customers prefer to receive leak notifications via email over text message or automated voice
  • Multi-channel delivery increases recall. The more channels available to communicate a leak alert, the more likely people will remember receiving the notification
 
In the end, what this all adds up to is that using digital technology to connect and engage customers not only provides tremendous value to water utilities and their end-users but that these trends are irreversible. The world has changed and suppliers that don't embrace these insights will find themselves falling behind in operational efficiency, cost-effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and service reliability. Fortunately, there are affordable solutions that can quickly address these needs. We invite water utilities from around the country to join this ongoing journey and become part of our next hundred customers. All it takes is a willingness to embrace the inevitable. 

Posted in utility customers, utilities, improved communication, digital engagement, self-service, customer satisfaction, leak resolution, group messenger, bill explainer

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