Drinking water

A case study
P Prevos, M.K Goetz
Publication Date (Web): 12 April 2018
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21139/wej.2018.019

Customer perceptions of water quality hide a paradox. Even though water might be perfectly safe to drink, some of the chemicals that utilities add to safeguard public health can erode the customer’s perception of quality. This paper discusses how water tasting by employees and the public can illuminate this tension, beyond what we can learn from laboratory testing.

Gaining customer approval requires more than a government-stamped certification that water is “safe to drink.” The water also cannot be brown or smell. It certainly should not catch fire when you set a match to it. Above all, water has to taste refreshing. Customers do not just want safe water; they want good water that meets their aesthetic preferences.

Water utility professionals excel at minimising contaminants in tap water to make it safe. Scientists have also done great work on the relationship between laboratory testing and the taste experience. None of these laboratory tests can, however, reliably replicate the customer experience.

For many water utilities, customer complaints and surveys are the only gauges of the perception that customers have of tap water. This information is valuable, but utilities need more detailed intelligence about how customers perceive their water to understand the customer experience fully. 

Coliban Water developed the Tap Crawl, a tongue-in-cheek name for a formal water quality monitoring activity. This taste testing method does not follow the conventional flavour profile analysis techniques used in laboratories but closely replicates the customer experience. Instead of using a few people formally trained in tasting water, the Tap Crawl employs a large number of ‘naïve’ subjects. After all, our customers are not scientists or water sommeliers, but they hold firm opinions about what they find acceptable.

The survey question is simple: “How pleased are you with the taste of this water?” In addition, subjects also use the water flavour wheel to describe the taste of the water. The Tap Crawl transports the experience of customers in the systems managed by Coliban Water into the head office. These events provide actionable intelligence about the customer experience and make the taste of water a topic of conversation in meeting rooms and around water coolers.

The next logical step was to bring the taste testing to its customers. Coliban Water organised a public event in Bendigo. The public taste testing event was a great success, both as a method to obtain intelligence about customer perceptions and to build the Coliban Water brand within the community.

Coliban Water has used the information gleaned from these events in its current pricing submission. The utility has proposed to provide the customers in water systems that experience consistent taste problems a rebate to compensate for their negative experience. 

This case study explains how to use taste testing to obtain intelligence about water quality and as a tool for strengthening customer focus and community engagement.

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