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Customer satisfaction the new paradigm for water utilities

With water utilities searching for ways to generate capital in an age of competing pressures – population growth, demographic change and economic uncertainty, to name a few – Ozwater’16 delegates have been told it’s time to transfer to a customer-first focus.

SA Water Senior Asset Manager Peter Seltsikas said water utilities’ primary customer challenge is dropping the asset-based decision-making model.

“Infrastructure is a big focus for water organisations. It would be fair to say that a majority of people in our organisation are focused on managing and enabling assets to perform,” Seltsikas said.

“With all of that infrastructure, it is easy to imagine water utilities as an engineer's playground. We can get lost in worrying about the performance of the asset and talking about things from a technical perspective.”

Seltsikas said utilities need to start thinking about their assets in relation to services, and their investments in relation to customer satisfaction.

“We spend so much time thinking about how our assets are performing. But it is really important to recognise the strong connection between what we are doing with our assets and the experience that the customer is having,” he said.

“While we have to make really good asset related decisions, because we need a reliable asset base, we also need to make sure we understand what our customers are getting from our investment, because our investment is large.”

With many water utilities focused heavily on asset-based investment decision-making, Seltsikas said adopting a customer-first investment model makes decisions about infrastructure more customer-friendly.

“[SA Water] set about finding a different way of thinking about how we invested our money and what is driving our capital investment, and in the last few years we have started working with a framework that has a different lens for investment,” he said.

“The new model starts to drive a conversation about the beneficiary of our investment. It might be the customer, it might be the community, or it might be our employees. The conversation is also about what these groups get out of our investments.”

When thinking about investment in regard to beneficiaries, Seltsikas said assets start to become a means through which to provide customer satisfaction.

“We need to be thinking about our asset-related decisions in regard to customer satisfaction,” he said.

“And if you can do that well, it will link back down to the issues that asset planners are worried about, including infrastructure KPIs, and give them an opportunity to better understand why they are doing what they are doing.”

Sydney Water Research Direction and Value Manager Michael Storey said, in the era of customer satisfaction, water utilities are no longer a hidden service provider.

“For many years, we were of a mindset that water utilities should be invisible, and I think we should be careful what we wish for,” Storey said.

“The water industry is currently undergoing significant changes at a rate greater than ever in its history. We have seen an increase in populations, economic uncertainty, changes in society, consumer demands, changes in technology – and these will all challenge and change the way that we do business.

“The reality is that we need to innovate. We need to create great value for our customers, we need to create a greater source of value to our business enterprise.”

Storey said water utilities now need to learn how to innovate if they are to take hold of the opportunity customers’ expectations provide.

“We are competing in an environment where our customers are constantly distracted. And the onus is on us as a utility to make a shift. This is a big challenge for us,” Storey said.

“Design thinking and innovation invites a certain level of risk and failure. Learning to fail – I think that is something we need to learn in the water industry.”

With more than 3000 delegates attending Ozwater’16, the Australian Water Association has designed a store of specialist network itineraries to help delegates make the most of their conference experience.

See the full program here.

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