Category Archives: Affinity Water

The power of complaining

I always encourage people to complain. You spend good money on things (through buying or taxation) and it seems mad that we accept poor quality, bad value and shoddy service. But complaining is hard it takes time and energy and we don’t always know what ‘good’ is and when services fall short. Complaints are also not the same – there is a  big difference between your water supply not working in your home and thinking that generally, a service could have been delivered better. The staff a bit nicer.

For me complaining is not about the one interaction I may have with a company or public service that was a bit shoddy – for me it is about the next customer too. If the company does not know that this a problem that affects many their customers how can they change what they do. Get better. This is why I complain. Lots.

I complain mostly to banks, especially because they ask you to either write or use a premium rate number to make a compliant. This, in my view, is a poor service tax and is completely unacceptable. It should never cost me money to complain.  I also always ask how things will change as a result of my complaint.

It is part of the reason why I went for a role at CCWater. I wanted to champion the consumer and level the playing field for customers in a sector that used to be a public utility where the relationship is complex. You can’t move water supplier. It is also a vital service (water and sewage) that keep us healthy. Water is precious.

As always these things are not simple. In water a complaint about price, a leak, customer service, a major incident are all different. They alert a company to something fundamental and sometimes unique about their service offer and how it can improve or deal with risk and disaster. But whatever the complaint, they are all about a element of service delivery and how it can improve or evolve.

Water is not an easy  business, but it is affected by the weather (flood or drought) with an infrastructure that is buried underground with expensive and technical equipment that purifies the water we drink. It needs keep pace with the things (like pesticides) that sneak in and affect it. Most business will never have to deal with such a complex set of external, unknown factors.

The bill and its cost is the simplest complaint of all, and in most cases it is the only interaction we ever have with a water company. The only lever we have as customers.

So what am I getting at?

I have heard a series of presentations from water companies today about their complaint numbers.  The payments they get for delivering water in part relies on good performance in this area. I am generally quite impressed, water companies are not slow in innovating around complaints. They do see them as fundamental to service delivery. They have an incentive to do well.

So here are my key thoughts from the presentations today:

How do you measure light touch comments and complaints made through non-traditional providers?

Complaint numbers for most industries are collated from the phone and email complaints. But there are many more ways to complain – they may be a quick picture of a water leak from the phone on twitter. Is it captured? Does it count? Do you ask people to go and fill in an online form? (yes Islington Council I am looking at you here)

Is the sector interacting with new platforms powered by consumers rather than themselves? I am keen to talk to Resolver about how complaints to Thames Water and other companies is going. How are they planning to disrupt complaints ? What can water companies learn (what can CCWater learn?). Are these complaints measured? Are they included in the ‘official’ figures?

Is the process for comments and ideas different to complaints?

Islington once sent out a great set of posters saying they were a listening Council. They wanted ideas as well as complaints. But there was a no process for an idea or comment. Everything was treated as a complaint. You can’t have the same process for engaging people around ideas as you do problems. You have to build new systems that do the right job.

How can water companies really engage customers in co-designing and even prototyping their future? A good case in point is redesigning bills. Water bills go out once a year the window of opportunity to change it narrow – not very agile.  Maybe there is a group of customers that could form something more dynamic than a focus group and instead become the companies early trial group. Here I always use the example of the Maramarati (of which i am a dedicated member) – a dedicated fan group who test ideas (mostly marketing) for social media before they are launched on the public. It is harder to engage people around being a special-sub group around water. Not impossible. But its a challenge worth investigating (I see water conservation and health being key pulls). These customers could be tour beta testers and changes can be made before roll out. Real critical friends.

I am interested to here more innovation and ideas of good practice in this area and if there is inspiration from other sectors.

How do you think ahead?

Competition is about to come into water for non-domestic customers and there could be some spin-offs for household customers – businesses demanding more and better can drive change as a whole. But I don’t think this is the only change driver – technology, environment and political and policy changes will create a different expectation from customers. How you use all these factors as a positive rather than something that takes you by surprise.

How do we (CCWater) use what we know about water companies and their customers to campaign back to water regulators and the Government?

I don’t think this role (a LCA) is a one way street. Meeting the challenge of us all using less water is not just the responsibility of water companies. But its not clear who is taking the lead. The same with the complete arse about tit way the social tariff has been done (more on this at a later date). What are the issues we can take back the other way, bring together a coalition of interested parties and make a real difference? There was a long list produced at recent stakeholder meetings and I would be interested if, in developing its workplan, CCWater will be introducing some bark as well as bite.