My takeaways from a week in the UK. A couple of weeks ago trains around Sydney were a mess, completely constipated (forgive the bad pun, you know I had to bring it back to a water theme). Media conferences every five minutes and rightly a very large number of very unhappy customers. It’s that word ‘customers’ that really seemed to upset some people on the basis that rail travel is a monopoly ‘public’ service.

Of course the same could be said for urban water services here in Australia. Over in the UK the same ‘monopoly’ applies to residential water services, however with private owners and there is not one iota of complacency in providing customer centric water services.

It was refreshing to spend a few days in the UK attending a high quality water customer conference through Utility Week and meeting our collaborators including WaterUK, UKWIR, Consumer Council for Water and Isle Utilities.

But to the conference first:

  • Familiarity + Favourability = Trust is the Trust EquationWhile customer satisfaction and trust has been increasing for water services – in fact most essential services in the UK - there is an emerging and worrying trend that might see those trust figures slip. That trend relates to another measure called ‘customer effort’ which is creeping upwards, sounds pretty much self-explanatory. Many of the utilities are using the equation familiarity + favourability = trust as a black box type framework that seems to work. They break that down further: favourability is based on both value for money and customer service.
  • Excellence will be the new norm. Undoubtedly a major theme emanating from all the speakers, including John Russell from OFWAT and ‘its not ok to be ok’ from Jo Causen from the Institute for Customer Service. It is clear that stakeholders, regulators and customers are raising the bar to new levels as the water businesses prepare to lodge their submissions for PR19. Excellence, brilliance, moments of difference were words and phrases sprinkled heavily through the presentations from the utilities. Expectations of service are driven by everyday experiences – not by customers comparing utilities from across the country.
  • Leadership. Interesting to note there seems to be a growing trend for a super GM type role at utilities. Certainly combining customer and operational responsibilities is the new norm, but a growing trend of combining the human resource role in that single GM space. Jo Causen talked about some significant work clearly linking customer satisfaction and trust with deep employee engagement. Louise Beardmore from United Utilities was a really impressive leader and speaker who is covering all three roles.
  • ‘Channels by choice’ not ‘digital by default’. Sarah Bentley from Severn Trenttalked about utilities being available anytime, anywhere through any device. The message from all the speakers was that funnelling customers through only digital channels was not the right direction. There was a great question from the audience – what about the silent majority?  No different to here in Australian and NZ, how do you engage the customers who persistently won’t engage for a variety of reasons. Louise Beardmore provided a great response: ‘create the moments of difference, create WOWs’ which is a reference to the WOW awards website where huge emphasis is placed on live customer feedback. Do something with street works, create an opportunity to be seen creating community value as well as minimising service disruption.
  • Vulnerable customers. Across the board, stakeholders, regulators and utilities were all talking about approaches to assisting vulnerable customers, with some programs similar but not the same as say the Yarra Valley Water ‘Thriving Communities’ initiative.
  • Net Promoter Score.  The NPS is being used widely, although with some trepidation. Many utilities are disappointed with scores below +50. Ofwat will be trialling the use of NPS within their CMeX framework in PR19.

I also took the opportunity to meet our key collaborators in the UK. We are developing a collaboration with Tony Smith, CEO at the Consumer Council for Water, on leading edge customer engagement, picking up some of the experiences and lessons learnt from WSAA members and comparing that with the UK water utilities particularly after they submit their proposals under PR19 later this year. It was evident that the UK water utilities are continuously undertaking engagement with their customers – not just when a price submission is required. As Louise Beardmore said: ‘be curious, constantly’.

I talked to WaterUK (the WSAA of the UK) about benchmarking programs that we may be able to develop and collaborate on in the short to medium term. In particular some international comparisons of customer satisfaction and trust, and financial outcomes. There is a real desire from the UK to learn more about our water efficiency programs and our encouragement to #choosetap. One issue dominating the agenda is the policy from the Labour Party to renationalise the water utilities if they were returned to government.  I also met with UKWIR – the utility collaborative research organisation - and discussed our existing collaborations on a number of projects and looking forward to new opportunities this year.

Finally I was very lucky to meet two CEOs in the UK water industry, Heidi Mottram from Northumbrian Water and Liv Garfield from Severn Trent. Energetic, committed and inspirational, it was a pleasure to hear highlights from their organisations. Severn Trent is leading the industry in gender diversity with women making up 60% of their workforce and won the Utility of the Year award for 2016 and Northumbrian Water was recently awarded Utility of the Year by Utility Week for 2017. It will be our great pleasure to have Heidi Mottram joining us in August for our annual Chairs/MDs forum and members meeting.

8 Feb 2018

Adam Lovell

Adam Lovell

Executive Director