utility customers

Recent Lessons in Crisis Communications

By Ed Archuleta
 
 
 austinWater-01
It is a crisp October morning. A WaterSmart colleague rolled out of bed late, grabbed his things, and rushed out the door without turning on the local news. He spent his commute listening to one of his favorite podcasts and checking texts and emails on his phone (but not while driving!). When he got into the office, he headed to the kitchen, and as he began to fill a glass of water from the tap a coworker gasped and asked if he heard about the boil water notice. Immediately, concern set in and he began to wonder how he missed such a critical announcement. Unfortunately, this lack of public awareness is not an uncommon occurrence during a water quality incident. 
 
Many urban water utilities are facing major challenges, including massive population growth, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and aging infrastructure. Austin Water is a world class utility organization operating under similar pressures and planning to address them via their recently released 100 Year Plan. On Monday, October 22nd Austin Water announced a boil water notice which remained in effect until Monday, October 29th.  Following flooding in the area, residents were ordered to boil their tap water as the water supply had been infiltrated with silt, mud, and debris. Water quality incidents are a risk for any utility on any given day. As noted by the Texas Water Journal, the frequency of incidents threatening drinking water quality in Texas has increased over the past six years. In particular, incidents of boil water notices (BWNs), sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), and Lead Contamination Public Education (LCPE) increased by 73%, 983%, and 1,300% respectively between January 2011 to December 2016.
 
Even an organization as sophisticated as Austin Water is challenged to keep customers appraised about a boil notice. Transparency and clear communication with customers is always critical when handling a water quality incident. Without it, customers quickly lose trust in their utility. Flint, Michigan is a classic example. The circumstances that led to the boil notice were beyond Austin’s control and are a good reminder to all utilities of their potential vulnerability. 
 
While utilities can't always control their water quality, there are a wide range of low cost technology solutions that can help utilities cope with customer communication challenges during critical incidents by increasing timeliness, expanding reach, and targeting assistance.
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Timely communications are key
In today’s world, customers expect instant information access. From Presidential Alerts to trade updates for our favorite sports teams, we receive critical and not-so-critical information at ease via our mobile devices. It should be no different when it comes to utility communications. Relying on local news outlets or expecting customers to monitor a utility social media feed is a recipe for disaster. DC Water was recently guilty of just this; as customers became concerned and even furious to find a trickle of Tweets that left customers uninformed of a water quality incident for nearly 12 hours. With Group Messenger, utilities have the power to communicate with customers quickly and easily via multiple channels (automated voice call, SMS text, and email) especially during critical times. 
 
Of course, not all communications are the same, and it is important to recognize that providing information out of context, or at the wrong moment, can actually result in greater frustration or confusion on the part of the customer. And on the flip side, if a utility doesn’t provide clear communications at critical times it has the potential to cause serious damage to the trust between customers and their utility. 
 
Redefine who should be considered a customer
Water customers don’t just mean account holders. Customers also include tenants, homeowners’ associations, property managers, property owners, landscape contractors, commercial tenants, and other water service stakeholders. These stakeholders should also have access to clear and timely communications regarding the state of water quality, and, in Austin's case, communicate the need to dramatically reduce demand by prohibiting irrigation. Email or text notifications can be delivered to HOAs, apartment building owners, and condominium units so that residents on shared multi-family residential meters can be notified by the account holder. Particularly when it comes to a water quality incident, communications should be going out to as many people as possible since we're all vulnerable to health impacts from water quality issues
 
Assistance should be targeted
During a water quality incident, utilities often offer supplies or support to their customers in the form of free bottled water pickup stations. Yet, a service that no one is aware of will not accomplish its goals. To reach customers efficiently, utilities should particularly employ targeted communications to engage their disadvantaged communities. The right segments can be identified and targeted based on a variety of eligibility criteria. In this case, customers enrolled in Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs) should be targeted with messaging regarding the available bottled water. This allows utilities to increase the chance of providing vulnerable populations access to clean drinking water throughout the notice period.
 
As always, critical incidents like what Austin Water faced are good reminders for utility customer service departments to remain focused on regularly collecting customer contact information. Each time a customer calls in is an opportunity to check that the utility has the correct home number, mobile number, and email on file for future communications. Utilities never know when they may be up against a wall and need to get in touch with their customers quickly and effectively. Proactive communication is a best practice and the more prepared that a utility is to quickly reach out to their customer base, the better position everyone will be to weather the storm.
 
 
 
Edmund Archuleta serves as an Advisory Board Member for WaterSmart Software. Ed served as General Manager for the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board from January 1989 through January of 2013 where he has since been an advisor. During his service as General Manager, El Paso Water Utilities was recognized in Texas, regionally, and nationally for innovations and leadership in water conservation, reclamation, and utility management. Mr. Archuleta is a registered Professional Engineer in Texas, New Mexico, and Iowa.

Posted in utility customers, utilities, improved communication, digital engagement, customer satisfaction, group messenger, water quality, customer service, customer communication, outage communications

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