All too often, water utilities will only think about customer communications when faced with the unpleasant task of informing users of a rate increase. But effective, ongoing customer communication strategies can raise community awareness of the value of water, engendering trust and making conversations about rate changes easier for customers to understand and accept — and less likely to meet with resistance.
Giving your customers a better understanding of the value of water, from source protection to the cost of storage, treatment, and distribution systems, will give them a greater appreciation of a resource that is often taken for granted. With the inevitability of rate increases required to continue the level of service your community has grown to expect, having your customers on your side will reduce pushback and make these important decisions easier for everyone to digest, from elected officials to the general public.
Water system managers know better than anyone the challenges they face today. Everything from aging infrastructure to rising costs, to outdated rate structures that are inadequate to meet long-term revenue requirements, these are all issues that weigh heavily on a system manager’s mind. Communicating those issues, to both customers and governing bodies, is one of the biggest challenges of their job.
Here are just a few of the problems that make those communications so difficult.
- Water systems are often seen as a ‘silent service’ — always there when you need them but rarely heard from.
- Customers don’t appreciate the value of water because they don’t understand the true cost of the work involved in delivering clean water to their tap.
- Customers are unaware of the reality of aging water infrastructure and other challenges that systems face.
- Water utilities often lag behind other utilities when it comes to communications — think about how often you hear from your power utility compared to your water service.
- Without a reason to think about it, customers take their water for granted — their bill is often small enough and/or consistent enough that they never give it a second thought.
- There is sometimes a misconception that a water utility sees its customers as just street addresses.
- Customers often first hear about rate changes through the media, which can result in misinformation or miscommunication.
All of this adds up to a potential disconnect between how ratepayers see their water service (if they think about it at all) and the very real challenges water utilities face in delivering that service.
There are many methods water utilities can employ to proactively communicate the value of water and water services to their customers. Each does involve both cost and effort but it isn’t necessary to use all of them — choose only those that make sense for your community, your individual situation, and your available resources. Other factors, such as geography, system size and age, and regulations, can also impact which communication opportunities will best suit your needs.
Below are some effective touchpoints useful in educating and engaging your customers.
- System website content, articles, and/or blog posts
- Bills inserts and newsletters
- System tours (source, treatment, storage, and distribution facilities)
- Brochures and leaflets
- Social media
- Community booths at public events
- School and community presentations
- Public outreach programs
- Open discussions/calls for input
- Informative construction signage
Again, you don’t need to use everything in this list. A good strategy for small systems with limited resources might include posting information on your system’s website (and keeping it up-to-date), a campaign of bill inserts and/or newsletters, and public outreach in the form of community events and presentations.
No matter which communication methods you decide to use, it’s important to establish an overarching strategy to ensure your message remains consistent and on-point, regardless of channel. Inconsistency, in either tone or substance, will undermine the effectiveness of your message and will erode, rather than build, customer trust.
Here are a few ideas to point you in the right direction.
Know the truth.
Before you communicate anything to your customers, it’s important to have a full understanding of your system’s current situation. You should have a clear grasp of your current revenues and future revenue needs, and that includes knowing your system’s status as far as infrastructure age and long-term replacement goals, as well as other capital expenditures you should be planning for now. Waterworth can help you with all of that, including helping you create a communications strategy.
Create a strategic communications plan
That means planning what you’re going to say, how and when you’re going to say it, and who will be saying it.
Be available for your customers.
Communication is a two-way street. Your communications should be the start of a conversation and that means you should welcome responses from your customers. They should be able to contact you, request information, provide feedback, and have access to up-to-date information online.
Be willing to change course.
Pay attention to how your customers are responding to your communications and if your message is falling flat or, even worse, generating negative reactions, revisit your strategy and make adjustments. Even the most well thought out communications can sometimes miss the mark. The key is to be able to change course, if it’s necessary.
An ongoing communications program can help engage and educate customers on the value of water, including the true cost of its reliable delivery to the tap. When a community gains an understanding of both, conversations about raising water rates become easier, as they become more about the rising costs associated with providing the service. With education comes understanding, and that understanding will increase the likelihood of acceptance when a rate increase becomes necessary.
For helpful information on crafting effective communications, check out our post on Communications Basics for Water Service Providers.
Or if you’re preparing for your own rate changes, download Waterworth’s Communicating Water Rate Changes white paper. This interactive guide informs on communications best practices and includes interactive worksheets to build out your own communications strategy.