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Utilities need to make great customer experience a priority, say experts

Water utilities must invest in customer care and a personalised approach if they wish to remain competitive in the long term, delegates at the Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney heard yesterday.

An example of a utility taking this personal care approach to heart came from Yarra Valley Water, which found that a large portion of their customer base struggles to pay their water bills.

“Three million Australians live below the poverty line, and 50% of our customers have struggled to pay water bills at some point in the past 12 months,” said Michelle d’Offay of Yarra Valley Water (YVW).

YVW also found that 10% of their customers have always struggled to pay their bills.

After some research, YVW distilled the reasons that customers didn’t seek support when struggling to pay their water bills, such as a lack of awareness, embarrassment or mistrust, lack of early identification and siloed services.

They then developed a number of support initiatives that provide struggling customers with alternative methods of paying their water bills.

One was the WaterCare initiative, which involved a varied approach that provided support programs, pathways and services to help customers manage their water and sewerage bills.

Their target customer base for this included families with the financial pressure of young children and customers who weren’t fluent in English.

Another initiative, YVW’s SmoothPay system, allowed customers to pay monthly or fortnightly instead of quarterly to avoid accruing large bills that they were unable to afford.

The program has been successful so far, and resulted in a 120% increase in YVW customers accessing government grants for water, a 50% increase in customers accessing SmoothPay, and an 80% increase in customers accessing utility support services.

Most importantly, said d’Offay, an external review found that the program was sustainable, with an ROI of 200%.

Another utility faced with a customer experience problem was Sydney Water, who discovered they had been neglecting a potentially valuable customer base: developers.

Sydney Water decided to start treating developers as customers, and not just “people who put pipes in the ground,” said Sydney Water’s Andrew Kirkwood.

“For 18 years, Sydney Water had assumed that process efficiency was the most important thing to developers.”

He went on to say that they believed developers wouldn’t want the added hassle of dealing directly with the water utility. But after employing a third party to conduct market research, Kirkwood said they discovered that developers wanted that direct relationship.

With more than 36,000 new dwellings to be built in Sydney each year for the next five years, developers are set to become Sydney Water’s primary form of customer acquisition.

This was a revelation for the utility, but Kirkwood said that any customer experience program must be supported by corporate commitment to a customer-centric strategy and its implementation.

“Once insight is available, you have to act on it. Customer service is a better measure of a utility’s perception than water quality,” he said.