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Water sector to take stock of customer perceptions

Water sector to take stock of customer perceptions - Local Government April 2017 Featured Image

A national water survey will help councils better understand customers’ attitudes, says Water New Zealand’s chief executive John Pfahlert.

Get involved
Water New Zealand is asking all councils to get behind the survey and help promote it through newsletters to customers, rates bills and other mechanisms.
The survey will begin at the start of May and run for six weeks.
Findings will be presented at the Water New Zealand Annual Conference in Hamilton in September.
• For more information contact John Pfahlert, ceo@waternz.org.nz

Water is one of the most essential services that local authorities provide to customers every day yet it’s a service that most people don’t understand. They don’t know what it means to be without water for a day and don’t understand just how little it costs every time they pour a glass of water from their tap.
Many local authorities are now recognising this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
As Auckland Watercare’s CEO Raveen Jaduram explained to an audience at the Water New Zealand annual conference, monopolies need to be customer centric because customers have no choice, and when they don’t understand the service, they start to lose trust.
That’s why the term customer engagement has become a buzz phrase for many of us in the sector. But what does that mean? To ensure that our customers fully understand the great value provided for them, we first need to understand our communities’ attitudes, priorities and perceptions.
A growing view in our sector is that that we need cultural change in how we engage with each other. The change requires more collaboration and focus on what we, as a sector that provides essential services, have in common.
It’s with this in mind that Water New Zealand is launching a national water survey that will seek the views of a diverse cross section of New Zealanders and gather data and opinions on a number of questions around water and the services they get.
The survey, which will be the first comprehensive national stocktake of its kind, aims to help councils and water utilities better understand their customers and provide valuable information to help build customer relationships.

This is what the national water survey will cover:
Drinking water How important is drinking water quality to New Zealanders and how confident are they in their existing provider to deliver safe water?Fresh water quality How important is this to our communities and the level of confidence they have in their provider to protect water bodies from sewage overflow?
Acceptability What is an acceptable level of wastewater overflows, wastewater treatment and land disposal of treated sewage?
Water efficiency What options would customers be prepared to implement to be more efficient, including individual metering? How willing would customers be to invest more to become more efficient?
Price of water We know that salaries are not keeping up with the increase in costs and this is important for people around New Zealand. Are customers aware of how their water services are charged and what they currently pay per year? What are their expectations of price changes, and how they could, or would like to, reduce their water charges?
Sources of water Only a small portion of water that falls as rain can be stored in New Zealand. Do customers know where their water is sourced? What are their attitudes to land use in catchments where water is drawn?
Water infrastructure There has been significant growth in some towns and cities in New Zealand, which leads people to question whether the focus should be on maintaining the capacity and quality of existing networks, before additional investment is required to meet growing demands. What do customers think about investment in infrastructure?
Customer service It is important for the water industry to understand customers’ awareness of who provides the services they receive and the time taken to fix outages. How do customers feel after they come into contact with their utility?
Technology impact Technology is an important tool in providing services in line with customers’ expectations. We need to understand if this is currently being done efficiently or if consolidation is an option customers would accept, assuming the appropriate financial savings are achieved.
Customer responsibilities Do customers understand their role in water service delivery by using water efficiently, correctly disposing of items to stormwater and sewer, and household maintenance?
Communications What level of communication and engagement do customers wish to receive in relation to water services? What channels of communication do they expect and / or prefer? Do they know who to complain to if the need arises?

Waikato District Council: Customers at the heart of business
A journey to firmly embed a customer-centric philosophy in everything it does has already started to pay dividends for the Waikato District Council. There’s been a big improvement in response times and, as a result, customer satisfaction.
As part of the philosophy, the council set itself a challenge to have the “most engaged community in New Zealand by 2020”.
It is an ambitious target, especially on the back of findings in 2013 that the council wasn’t meeting customers’ needs in terms of response times or working quickly enough over community concerns.
General manager, service delivery, Tim Harty says the first stage of the plan was to empower frontline staff so they could answer questions and customers didn’t feel they were getting the run around.
To achieve this, there was a need for better information sharing between technical and frontline staff through means such as ensuring the “knowledge tree” was well updated about issues.
“We streamlined the online process and reduced the levels of bureaucracy, reducing the number of categories for service agreements from around 200 to 20.”
The streamlined process also meant changing the way the council worked with contractors.
“For instance, when a call comes in about a leaky toby the information will now be directed straight to our contractors for action rather than delaying the process as we had in the past by [needing to have] one of our staff turn up to inspect it first.”
Other initiatives include electronic logging for requests for service.
The results have been positive. Feedback is showing an increase in customer satisfaction and surveys show improved metrics around questions like how easy it is to do business with the council.
Tim acknowledges this has been a big mindset change for the council but one that was needed because “without customers we don’t exist – there’s no other reason for this business”.

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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