An Unexpected Surprise
I recently picked up an out-of-town guest at the airport after a long day at work, and we arrived at my apartment late in the evening, around 9pm. My guest happened to see a big piece of paper attached to the mailbox with blue painters tape. I expected that it was an election flyer, so I pulled it off and found the light switch for the porch. Stepping inside, I looked at the notice. It said that my water had been shut off.
I rent an apartment, and I have never seen a water bill. I tried to recall the lease terms – I was pretty sure that the building owner paid for water service. I read the fine print on the notice that indicated water service would be restored if I paid in person at the main office during business hours the next day. However, even if the bill was paid tomorrow, service might not be restored on the same day that the payment was made.
I called the building owner who said she had no idea why the water service had been interrupted. The other two units in my building had water. I tried the tap. Water trickled out, so I filled a measuring cup so that I might have a little reserve in case of emergency. Then the water stopped.
Wow. My guest was surprised, I was surprised, and my building owner was surprised. In any case, there was nothing to do until the next morning. The next morning I went to work, a bit fragrant and unshaven. My building owner committed to restoring my service as soon as possible.
Unraveling the Mystery
My landlord had originally set-up the water bill for auto-payment. Each unit in the building has its own water meter and bill, and the account used to pay the bill in my unit was a different account used to pay the bills for the other units. At some point the landlord closed the account used to pay the bill for just my unit, and the building owner failed to update the bank account information.
The water utility sent several print notifications to the landlord that payment was delinquent, but she assumed they were not important to open because the account was on auto-pay. The utility ultimately shut-off water service and I found myself in an awkward and inconvenient situation.
The landlord was able to pay the bill the next morning and water was restored in time for dinner, so disaster averted. This turns out to be a fairly common occurrence and is very expensive as each time service is stopped and restarted costs the utility around $80. So what were the circumstances that allowed this to happen and what lessons can be learned to help water utilities improve customer engagement and reduce the opportunities for this to happen?
- Expand the definition of a customer
Water customers don’t just mean account holders. Customers also include tenants, homeowners’ associations, property managers, property owners, landscape contractors, commercial tenants, and other water service stakeholders. These stakeholders should also have easy access to the information they need 24x7x365 so that they value and understand the water services that are being provided to them. All such users benefit from topical, timely, and targeted information on water consumption and billing detail. These users, if informed with relevant information on a timely basis, can help avoid a similar, unfortunate situation.
- Embrace an omni-channel communication strategy
With this new idea of “customer”, there should also be a way to deliver information through the appropriate channel at the ideal moment. Perhaps the landscape contractor needs to better understand the proper times and days to irrigate, the tenant needs a notification that the water might be disconnected, or the building owner wants to receive a text message or voice call prior to the water being turned off. Utility communications are often done solely through print means – letters delivered to account holders or door hangers that need to be delivered by hand. But think about the wide range of other communication options that are available today – text messages, email, chat, automated voice calls, “live” calls, and mobile applications. Each customer or stakeholder segment should be given the opportunity to choose the channel of communication depending on the urgency or type of message.
- Adapt the Workflow
As we discussed above, service disconnects cost a significant amount of money for the utility to pursue collections, post door hangers, shut off service, and turn it on again after payment is made. These costs are real and can often be avoided – which results in a win for both the customer (broadly defined) and the utility. Most utilities lose money on the shut off process, and many write off substantial sums of money due to delinquent accounts. Regardless of whether someone can’t pay or forgot to pay, the shut off process is expensive and can leave someone with no water services for basic human needs.
Had I received a text or an automated call indicating that the bill was delinquent, I could have proactively contacted my landlord to address the billing issue before water was shut off. That would have been far less expensive for the utility than sending someone out to shut off my water, hang a door tag, and come back the next day to turn it back on.
WaterSmart recognizes that each customer is unique and we work closely with our utility partners to affordably and effectively reach all stakeholders – regardless of their role, account size, property type, metering technology, or location. These unique stakeholder segments also have unique communication preferences, and they each need to receive timely, topical, and targeted information so that no one is left high and dry.