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Customers, Innovation, Sprinting and The Gruffalo

A design sprint on customer service at WWT's recent Water Industry Technology Innovation Conference highlighted how the water industry has a long way to go on customer-focused innovation, writes Jacob Tompkins

by Jacob Tompkins, Co-founder and CTO, The Water Retail Company

I co-hosted a sprint session on customers at the recent WWT Water Industry Technology Innovation conference, in which the theme was: ‘How can water companies match Amazon for Customer Service?’

A lot of interesting topics were discussed – even if it was not so much a sprint as a convivial amble around a subject - but it was soon apparent that the level of innovation and customer focus in the water sector is so poor that rather than matching Amazon’s customer performance, we probably managed to get to where the marketing team at Wimpey had got to in 1978. We had the water equivalent of: why don’t we give away a gift with each burger; how about we try and find out who our customers are; why don’t we try awarding stars to our best performing employees.

My co-host had already been chided earlier in the day by the conference chair by being told that her brilliant presentation on customer innovation would have been better suited to a conference on customers (heaven forbid that the water industry ever mixes up innovation and customers!) and there was a general feel about the conference that customers weren’t really a serious topic when compared to manly things like sludge or reservoirs (only in the water sector is digging a big hole seen as innovation!).

Despite this, the sprinters were enthusiastic, there were lots of ideas, and lots of discussion. But it soon became clear that we were starting from a low base, and that there isn't much sharing of knowledge in the water sector, as all of the ideas have been piloted by one water company or another already.

The conclusions reached at the finish line were sound enough: the industry needs to get the basics right; there needs to be greater visibility of what water companies do; more sharing of information between water companies; apps or web portals for customers to view personal information; companies need to use customers’ preferred method of communication; they need to educate customers, and reward the right behaviour through incentives and disincentives.

These are all fine ideas, but nothing new for the water sector, and certainly nothing new for other utility sectors. They also smack of an attitude that pervades the water industry, which is, ‘the customer is always wrong’. Customers don’t understand the water industry, customers need to be educated, customers are using too much water, customers are causing fatbergs, customers don’t appreciate all the amazing things water companies do. What other sector would think that this view of customers is right?

And even when the sprinters did get dangerously close to running towards some real innovation, they were pulled back by their own collective fear of ‘The Regulator’. Like the Gruffalo in the children’s book, there are tales of how fearsome ‘The Regulator’ is, and how it will eat you if you don’t behave. Like Banquo’s ghost, the water companies always see Ofwat at any feast, and believe that they can’t innovate because Ofwat won’t allow them.

In their defence, Ofwat have for the past 10 years stressed that they will not prevent innovation, but the reality is different. Both Ofwat and the EA have sets of rules and mechanisms that make innovation risky. It would be a brave water company that embarked on a course of real innovation; and water companies are certainly not brave. The general mindset seems to be that if innovation is such a good idea, why hasn't someone else done it already?

Ofwat’s financial requirements reinforce this reluctance to innovate. How can water companies show full economic certainty for stuff they have never done before? This meant that ideas such as rewarding customers were not fully developed by the sprinters at the conference, as they were thought to be against Ofwat’s rules.

If I sound overly negative, this isn’t a reflection on the people we had in the sprint, who were thoughtful and full of ideas. But it does reflect how far behind the water industry is when it comes to customers. Because no matter how quickly you sprint, you can’t win if your starting line is 100m behind everyone else.

In my view the only way that the water industry can deliver real innovation for customers is to start looking at issues from the customers’ perspective.

For example, almost all water company systems and procedures are set up from a water company viewpoint. Customer consultation is only carried out when water companies need it for the Periodic Review, and I am sure you can all think of a lot more examples where the interests of the companies are put before the interests of the customers. It is obvious that until things like this change, the customer will always come last, no matter how many sprints there are.

Topic: Innovation , Policy & Regulation
Tags: water companies , Innovation , customer service

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