To communicate effectively, water utilities must adapt messaging and materials to the unique needs of their customers. There is already a great deal of marketing advice aimed at increasing customer engagement–from split testing emails to conducting focus groups, but for many communities, that means thinking about how to communicate with an increasingly diverse customer base in their native language, or language of choice.
One of the top priorities for a utility is its customers. Improving overall customer experience involves both transparent engagement and the delivery of cost-efficient, reliable services. Sharing data and data insights via machine learning with customers could help to build trust even if the utilities share information not favorable to utility operations, such as outages or water quality issues.
Leaks happen. Water utility staff know this best. An unexpected, possibly expensive and definitely time-consuming incident that takes time, money and resources. Technologies such as AMI are helping utilities and customers avoid long term damaging costs.
Denver Water recently presented a 5-year perspective on their experience evolving ratepayer engagement programs at the AWWA Sustainable Water Management Conference. Their goal was to measure the conservation cost-effectiveness ($/ac-ft) of and customer response to different communication strategies. Denver Water’s experience, and condensed presentation below, can help inform your decisions regarding digital communication. The presentation can be found at the end of this post.
Rewind it five years: 2013 In 2013 Denver Water’s conservation team began a monthly targeted paper letter campaign to 4,000 customers that used more than 25 gallons per square outdoor foot in 2012. Recipients were given an efficiency target (12 GPSF for pervious area) in the context of their usage. Some lessons were learned, largely around tone and content:
Customers were confused about usage reports based on previous year
Wording was harsh (25 opted out)
Average savings was 2.8% compared to control group
Cost / ac-ft: $396
Ac-ft Saved: 51
Efficiency Letters: 2014-2016 The following year Denver Water expanded the scope of their targeted paper messaging campaigns to 13,000 customers and started to include social norming features. These reports lasted two years and were based on layouts seen on energy bills and included more generalized language around efficiency recommendations and a “customers like you” graph that grouped customers based on their indoor usage and outdoor characteristics. Key lessons from these campaigns included:
Cost / ac-ft $824
Ac-ft saved: 69
Fewer customer calls compared to the initial outreach in 2013 (softening the language worked)
Customer survey of inefficient users: – Willing to reduce water
– They want more information than what the bill provides
In 2016 Denver Water increased the number of Efficiency Letter recipients to 20,000 and realized 112 ac-ft savings at $793/ac-ft.
It’s a mobile-first world: 2017 In 2017 Denver Water explored other channels for engaging customers and piloted a Dropcountr customer portal with the aforementioned 20,000 Efficiency Letter recipients. This “opt-in” digital approach provided Denver Water customers with all the features from earlier reports and more. It also provided the utility with advanced usage analytics and customer-supplied information such as household occupancy, types of appliances, presence of a pool or a lawn etc. The information gathered can be shared with other departments within the utility such as systems or demand planning, providing value beyond the initial conservation program.
Easily scalable One of Denver Water’s key insights was that supporting 2,000 accounts with Dropcountr’s technology is just as easy as supporting 200,000 accounts. While the cost of paper outreach increases with every unit shipped, software platforms like Dropcountr can cost-efficiently and consistently support all customers at a fraction of the price.
More effective Paper reports were effective in supporting Denver Water’s conservation programs but their impact is short-lived – water awareness lasts only from opening the envelope to recycling the paper report. Digital portals offer customers a round-the-clock relevancy – usage data, messages, price tiers and even rebates that can be updated on a moments notice without the cost or time-delay of paper reports.
This, coupled with the likelihood that customers are more likely to engage with their phones than with paper mail, led to a more effective (ac-ft conserved) and cost-efficient ($/ac-ft) campaign. In the end, 152 ac-ft were saved at a $450/ac-ft price point – well below the savings realized in the paper report trials.
Adoption signals The Dropcountr customer portal, HOME, was initially offered to 10,721 of the 20,000 aforementioned Denver Water Customers. Several email campaigns were sent to these customers explaining the program and encouraging registration (opt-in approach). Within four weeks19% of those recipients had registered for HOME; by fifteen weeks 29% registered. This level of rapid adoption was a clear signal that customers desired and expected this channel of utility engagement – a promising alternative to expensive traditional (paper) channels.
Perspective helps Five years of messaging trials gave Denver Water good perspective on what works, the associated costs and customer participation. Denver Water conducted a detailed review of several engagement options and concluded that the utility needs a digital customer relations platform that offers an online portal / app like Dropcountr that communicates efficient use. And it makes sense – digital communication is effective because it is:
easily adaptable to customer feedback
preferred by the customer
provides analytical feedback
Digital engagement and customer portals should be an option on the table if you’re looking to build goodwill with ratepayers ahead of these uncomfortable conversations or simply looking for a more cost-efficient means of communication.
Denver Water’s Presentation (wait a moment for the deck to load)
It sounds like a Skynet design Human-centric design (HCD) is basically a philosophy regarding the creation of websites, forms and services that seeks to simplify and improve constituent interactions with government. Adopted from the private sector, HCD ideally removes a bunch of the friction (time, money) long associated with government practice.
Ok, but who’s using it There’s momentum growing in every division of government: from foster care approval systems to food assistance programs to parole-assistance networks – even utilities! And it makes sense, the HCD approach gets down to the nitty-gritty deeply-held needs and motivations people have that explain why they behave they way they do. Understand people’s behavior, guide them in the desired direction, achieve desired (or at least improved) result – voilá!
An example please Water utilities looking to achieve water savings will sometimes exploit our desire to conform by contextualizing one neighbor’s usage against the other – also called social-norming. This approach is effective, doesn’t abuse price as a means and is often cheaper than the traditional technique. #soundslikeabetterway
Dropcountr takes a human-centric approach to helping water utilities with customer engagement, leak detection and water efficiency. Jump here to learn how social-norming (among other features) helped Denver Water save 152AF in just six months
➣Denver Water tests the digital waters (3-minute read) Denver Water recently presented a 5-year perspective on their experience improving existing programs through targeted communication at the AWWA Sustainable Water Management Conference. Perhaps their experience can help inform your decisions regarding digital communication.
➣Building homes to demonstrate technology (2 minute read) The Madison Water Utility is building several highly water-efficient homes for tours and to educate the public about potential water conservation technologies they can install in their homes. This “show-don’t-tell” style of information campaign is designed to inspire local homeowners and is a fun, informative change in communication strategy.
What’s happening at Dropcountr Montana, y’all. We just broke ground in Montana and could not be more excited to work with the City of Bozeman. Dropcountr will support the Neptune AMI-metered connections with custom daily budgets and an evolving set of tools, features and alerts, starting this year.
Also, our team presented at Texas Water ‘18 in San Antonio during Fiesta (¡viva!) and are gearing up for ACE 2018 in Las Vegas.
Have a great May, see you next month Team Dropcountr
Lake Arrowhead is a mountain community with roughly 8,000 connections and a destination for outdoor summer activities in the San Bernardino mountains, directly north / east of Greater Los Angeles. In 2015 the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District sought a customer portal to support the significant number of second-home property owners and seasonal visitors with leak alerts, usage analytics and conservation guidance.
The year is 2012 The Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) and Environmental Law Institute (ELI) recently released a 5-year update of their state-by-state scorecard regarding laws and policies that support water conservation and efficiency. The score – based on a battery of survey responses – touched upon topics such as water loss control, appliances and fixtures standards, conservation and drought planning, funding, assistance, billing and more.
So, how’d we do? Well, the U.S. averaged a “C”, the same grade awarded in 2012. Six states slipped on their 2012 score, but an impressive 26 improved their grade and more states achieved an “A” or “B” in 2017 than in 2012. So the net is: good growth, opportunity to improve. See the report here.
The year is 2022 Can you guess which states improved on their 2012 score? Why? Were they victims of drought, politically innovative, financially motivated, technically pioneering or something else? Now consider the 2022 scorecard – will the changes be reactionary or anticipatory?
“Water conservation and efficiency ensure the health and vibrancy of communities and businesses nationwide.”
➣When is drought not a drought? (8 minute read) Last month the Colorado River Research Group published a fantastic piece regarding the words we use to describe our changing physical environment. In place of drought, the group suggests an alternative that describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment.
➣What will you name your drain? (1 minute read) Virginia Beach is using an innovative mapping program to support its “Adopt-A-Drain” program, allowing residents to pick a storm drain (there are 40,000 choices), name it and keep an eye on it in the event of issues. The open dialogue, attentive watch and occasional civic clearing is expected to save the city $35,000 / year. Way to go Virginia Beach!
➣ I understand where you’re coming from (3 minute read) A recent study published in the latest issue of Water Resources Research found that the more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with political leaders and professional water managers. This complements ongoing efforts from AWE and others to educate customers regarding the [true] value of water and should be noted among staff considering restrictions or rate increases.
Dropcountr co-signed AWE’s letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in support of WaterSense and are happy to report the program is continued in this year’s budget.
MassDEP continued their support for our program with Dedham Westwood Water District in Massachusetts and we opened up a 15-month Spring Pilot Program to utilities that partner with us before June 1. Drop us a line or reply to this email for more details.
In addition to tracking water usage, customers can use the app to compare their usage to similar households, connect with utility alerts and rebates, and receive tailored water-saving tips.
“Dropcountr makes it very easy for me to save water,” said Bobby Chapman of Dedham, “I get detailed information about how much water my family is using and how I compare to others in my area delivered directly to my inbox along with water-saving tips, which helps me do my part to protect the Charles.”
The Flint water crisis brought long overdue attention to the state of U.S. water infrastructure. Repair and development costs are jaw-dropping. And water management is being scrutinized – from the top-down – to figure out how these costs are going to be paid for. Fortunately, the costs of water modernization can be quantified, forecasted, and accounted for, years in advance. Unfortunately, communicating price and service changes to the consumer is tough.
Despite their environment, at the edge of the dry west, 61% of Utah’s suppliers provide customers with “secondary” water systems: an additional connection that gives homeowners access to untreated and unmetered water, sold at a flat rate, to irrigate lawns, gardens, and landscaping.
All that available and unknown secondary water has made Utah one of the thirstiest states in the union, at an average of 167 gallons per capita daily, according to a dated 2010 survey.
A step forward
In February, Republican state senator Jacob Anderegg presented Senate Bill 204, which would require metering (not billing yet) of all secondary water connections by 2028. He knew the associated price tag would not be popular, but “as a conservative we’ve got to conserve. And the truth is we’re not.”
Data curtails usage
Saratoga Springs, a city in Senator Anderegg’s district, deployed secondary meters in 2015. Despite the 4,000 meter $3.5M pricetag (paid for by bonds) the city saw an immediate 30-50% reduction in secondary water use and saved the city money. Data wins again!
“Without the data, what we don’t measure we never improve” – Senator Anderegg
Penny for your…bill? A Florida woman recently exercised her displeasure with management by paying a $493 bill in pennies. McCool was responsible for a bill almost 10x her average due to a leak “neither a plumber or leak detector could find.” So she took her peaceful protest to social media and…carry the 9, drop the three… a lot of pennies. #customersatisfaction #couldabeenavoided
What’s happening at Dropcountr Headed to the Sustainable Water Management Conference later this month? Robb will be in Seattle for the event and keen to get together for a coffee or lunch. Drop him a line firstname.lastname@example.org anytime to coordinate.
It’s one of the questions we field most from our utility partners. The question makes sense: rebate participation is generally underwhelming, adoption of payment portals can be low, and sometimes it takes a hundred-year drought and fines to convince customers to conserve. What signs are there that customers would use a portal?
For better or for worse, these reservations are founded on past customer behavior – behavior in a non-digital era when water wasn’t metered and billed at a flat rate. Today’s utility customers, riding the waves of modern technology, have different expectations, different values, and different tools than their predecessors.
Let’s take a look at recent macro trends we’ve seen in customer expectations:
Not only do I want to send a package, but I want to track it too. Not only do I want a credit card, but I want to be notified as I approach my credit limit Not only do I want to fly, but I want to check in on my phone and not print boarding passes
Brands and service providers like banks, credit cards, and even the U.S. Postal Service have long adopted digital “tools and services” to satisfy customers and build brand loyalty. Organizations had to adopt these new models of customer service and this rising tide lifted customer expectations for everyone. Relationships, now online, are two-way and always on.
Meanwhile, the water utility playbook – focused on delivery – has stayed relatively consistent. And customers, who take it for granted that water will always come out of the faucet, haven’t traditionally thought about their utility until there’s an issue; so communication between the two parties has generally been limited to moments of dissatisfaction.
In today’s digital age, customer perception of their utility goes beyond the traditional metrics of quality, reliability, and price. The ability to communicate openly, quickly, and transparently shapes customer perception more than traditional metrics. Furthermore, this type of communication gives utilities the opportunity to proactively tell their story in ways that help customers understand the value of their services.
So, the questions make sense: “Are customers ready for digital access?” “Would customers find value in a portal?” “What does this mean for our utility?”
Below we’ll lean on some of the supporting data that indicate utility customers are not only ready, but desire a digital portal. Questions? Shoot them our way anytime at email@example.com
What does the data tell us about how consumers use their mobile device?
We spend a lot of time on mobile: 2.3 hours. 140 minutes. 9% of our day. However way you cut it: Americans spend a lot of time engaging with our phones and it’s not localized to teenagers or millennials – according to comScore, a media measurement and analytics company, even adults over the age of 65 spend more than 90 minutes a day sliding, swiping and tapping on mobile. Dinner tables everywhere cringe.
77% own a smartphone 83% in urban areas own a smartphone 89% between the ages of 30-49 own a smartphone 46% above the age of 65 have a smartphone. 12% (more than one-in-ten American adults!) are “smartphone-only” Internet users – meaning they own a smartphone and do not have traditional home broadband service.
If communicating effectively and widely with customers is a goal for utilities, this Pew Research data indicates that mobile is the best tool.
Customers prefer digital: In 2017, JD Power & Associates published a Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, which found three of the top five preferred communication channels among customers are digital (text message, blog, social media). Furthermore, “communicating [with the customer] once per month maximises satisfaction” and recall frequency.
In the era of paper and post, frequent “unnecessary” communication might appear daunting and expensive. But today’s tools make it easy for staff of all technical skills to cost efficiently deliver the right message to the right customers through the right channel at the right time. If customer satisfaction is important to the utility, a digital strategy must be in place.
What does our experience tell us about customer use?
There’s a rhythm to engagement: At Dropcountr we’ve found portal engagement – outside of utility alerts and messages – tend to occur on 14-day cycles: often after a bill is received by the customer and generally halfway through the billing period.
Seem high? More frequent than expected? This is likely because many web portals launched by utilities are rarely updated, difficult to access, and antiquated. A lack of resources or apparent need often leads to poorly designed portals and the challenge of “one-and-done” – when a customer registers for a service once and then fails to return.
Can you blame them? It can be hard to remember URLs, usernames and passwords. It’s a chronic issue not limited to utilities and a primary reason why we built Dropcountr as a native mobile app – easily available anytime with the tap of a finger, and guarded behind the phone’s security protocol.
Customer adoption says a lot: How quickly customers register for a portal is a good indicator of need and interest. Last summer we saw a 30% adoption rate in the first three months of service at a large midwestern utility – heads and shoulder above what’s typically seen among customer billing portals. Our utility partners are thrilled by the traction their investment in Dropcountr has received and our hypothesis is that a customer portal carries a different tone than a billing portal – one is for support and empowerment, the other a means of collection.
Neighbors talk: While building the heatmap view for utility staff we found a curious trend among households located in cul-de-sacs: customer adoption was viral month-on-month in environments where neighbors frequently interact. This adoption was during a period of zero outreach and repeated across several communities, indicating neighbors were talking with each other about their Dropcountr account.
This fascinating, observable insight indicates that utility customers are actively interested in managing personal water use; enough so that they would promote a solution like Dropcountr to their neighbors. This anecdote, paired with routine customer satisfaction surveys results, demonstrate that utility customers are not only ready, but desire a digital portal.
What it means for the utility
The new customer playbook writes itself: satisfaction is the goal, communication and ‘services’ the means, digital the preference and mobile the platform of choice.
The rising tide of customer wants and expectations shouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Yes, staff are being asked to do more with less, and yes, utilities are expected to deliver services beyond the meter. But the digital frontier provides tools and levers that demonstrably improve customer communication, giving utilities an opportunity to engage with customers in meaningful ways that are relatively low cost and user friendly.