Ofwat want to see customers at the heart of the way water companies run their businesses. They want companies to understand customer priorities, and to use this information to drive decision making.
Why is customer research and engagement relevant to the environment?
We know people care about the natural environment. If customer engagement and research is guiding decision making and investment by water companies, then this process can be used to justify spend on improving the environment (beyond legal requirements), and should therefore be of keen interest to all those working for the environment.
Environmental issues – such as sewage pollution or unsustainable abstraction - are often unknown, complex, or not well understood by customers, and so can be difficult to engage on. Compare this to other more tangible topics, such as ensuring water keep coming out of our taps. This makes the importance of high quality, unbiased customer research and engagement, even more critical.
Quality of customer research
Whilst customer engagement is a continual and ongoing activity, there are huge swathes of customer research conducted in the run-up to a price review, shaping and testing business plans – the focus here.
For an outside observer, it is difficult to assess the quality of water company customer research – as stakeholders we receive high-level findings and interpreted results. More details have been released with the publication of the business plans – but most still don’t publish full methodologies. Who was asked, what was asked, in what order, how the sample was selected, who did the asking - such specifics underpin proof of good quality, unbiased work.
Proving that their research is unbiased should be a key concern for water companies – after all, they choose the approach, set the questions, and interpret the results – the potential to sway the findings to suit the company’s preferred plan are plenty. We know that this is an issue – the Environment Agency recently criticised one water company for using leading questions in a consultation document. Publicly publishing detailed research methodologies would go a long way to resolving this issue.
Customer Challenge Groups
CCGs provide independent challenge to companies, and assurance to Ofwat, on the quality of a company's customer engagement, and the extent to which this is reflected in business plans.
Some CCGs have been very effective, achieving change not just in water company business plans, but in some cases the businesses themselves. However these groups do face challenges, some of which are highlighted here:
Diversity of CCG members - a range of stakeholders is important, as each will bring different focus and expertise. A mix of skills is also key - experts in areas such as customer engagement, and research methods are essential when considering quality of work. Effective CCG recruitment and remuneration are critical to ensure members have the time and skills required to effectively complete the job.
Timelines and workload – CCG members often report that they are given vast amounts of information by the water company with very tight turn-arounds – ensuring every aspect is covered off can be impossible.
The big picture – Efforts have been made to facilitate increased communication between CCGs, but it can be hard for a time-pressed CCG to truly understand the national picture. Providing clear comparisons and benchmarking between companies at timely intervals would certainly allow CCGs to be more effective.
Keeping the Environment Central to Customer Engagement
Ofwat is bringing the customer voice to the heart of the water industry. We know people care about their rivers and environment, and we must make sure that the environment is not a victim of the customer engagement process. High quality customer research is critical if the complex and often little known challenges facing the environment are to be given sufficient coverage.
Dani Jordan, Water Policy Specialist, WWF-UK
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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