Many of you have likely been hearing about the “Digital Transformation of Water Utilities.” Everything from Advanced Metering Infrastructure, to distribution network sensors, to modern customer communication systems are driving a wave of acceptance and adoption of new digital technologies throughout the water sector.
Technology innovation is continuing to disrupt the water sector leading utilities to explore new ways of communicating and engaging with customers. In an environment of constrained resources, utility leaders are also evaluating new approaches to improve operational resilience, particularly in the Western United States where water stress is no longer the exception, but rather the rule. These same water utilities need to find new ways to effectively communicate with the consumer base to enhance good will, improve customer satisfaction, and gain the political support needed to make ongoing investments in critical infrastructure.
The Digital Water Utility of the near future will require a host of modern data and technology solutions and should take advantage of hosted software platforms which incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities. These important technologies, coupled with more elegant ways of integrating legacy systems to the current easier-to-use applications, will change the trajectory of the entire sector. The consumerization of information technologies (IT) has been evolving and proliferating for well over a decade. Consumers are thus part of the driver in advancing the digitization of water utilities. Consider these benefits that the WaterSmart digital engagement platform deliver:
- Timely, targeted, and topical messages delivered to customers through a channel and time of their choosing
- Drag-and-drop mapping tools for fast, easy notifications in neighborhoods requiring service outages
- Improved leak outcomes by providing self-service, closed loop resolution flows within the platform
- Integrated billing and payment interfaces for improving accounts receivables
- Intuitive account management with personalized, user-friendly customer interfaces
- Reducing “unproductive” conversations around high bills using the Bill Explainer data analysis solution
- Digital forms to easily gather, process, and analyze data submissions for a variety of actions including start/stop service, rebate applications, home audits, or water waste
- Digital water reports to promote effective resource management and conservation.
Analogous to the evolution of the horse and buggy to Ford’s Model A in the early 20th century, legacy Customer Information Systems (CIS) have served their purpose, but in todays digitized world these obsolete architectures cannot effectively meet the demands of the current customer base. Just as Ford’s model A changed the tide of transportation, so too will the digitization of water utilities change the way water utilities operate in the near future.
The 3 M's: Mobile, Millennials, and Money
These 3 M’s will drive the underlying currents of change. The upcoming generation of millennial’s operate almost exclusively in the digital social and mobile world. They insist on easy-to-use digital communication tools and utilities that cater to these needs through mobile enabled applications will quickly see increased customer satisfaction results which all utilities are prioritizing today.
The deployment of new technologies such as the WaterSmart platform do require a financial commitment. Investments in new application software and staff training need to be made in order to realize the benefits of the technology evolution. But like any evolution, investments are critical to accommodate the changing demands of the customer base and the need for ongoing infrastructure rehabilitation.
The value of these investments is well documented. For example, J.D. Power reports that when customers know that their water utility is improving old infrastructure, customer satisfaction rises 113%. Estimates also indicate that paperless billing delivers satisfaction gains of 106% compared with paper bills. These are just a couple of the many data points which support the 3 M’s as critical to the future of the digital economy.
The digital transformation of water utilities, like a “king tide,” is a force to be reckoned with. Similar to the gravitational pull from the moon on the tide, the pull and demands of the market on water utilities necessitate and compel a monumental change. Those leaders that see the value and embrace the technological evolution will be the first to reap the rewards and help bring our risk averse and slow-moving industry into the light of digital enlightenment.