Thinking Outside the Bill
Written by: Deborah Sherwin

A water utility looking to build better relationships with their customers is often dealt a pretty lean hand. Common communication channels include a newsletter, a modest web-presence, bill stuffers, and—most prominently—the bill itself. The bill experience is predictable. A customer will sort out bills from an overflowing mailbox or inbox, skim through dense rows of numbers and tables, and zero in on the amount owed. If it seems generally similar to what was owed previously, they won’t give it much further thought—even less so if the customer is on auto-pay.

And why should they? It can be difficult to understand units on a bill (CCF? CF? HCF?) and most people believe they already use water judiciously. The bill doesn’t have much of a story to tell other than how much lighter their wallet will be when the check clears. With water, that amount is often too low in comparison to other expenses to merit much consideration.

This scenario plays out for customers across the country, but not all those customers are created equal. Despite their best intentions, many waste water without realizing it. So if we want to connect with them, get them to care about the water they use, and encourage wiser water-use behavior, we must take a closer look at why the bill experience falls flat, and what we can build to fill the gaps. Ultimately, by better engaging customers we can build trust, and improve the tone and value of customer service interactions.

One of the primary failings of the bill is that it represents an artificially limited universe populated by only one household. It can document historical use year over year, for the previous 12 months, or even 36 months. But that only paints the detail into the same singular portrait. Without a social component, there is no anchor point to contextualize the household’s consumption behavior. Our customer could have consistently high use every billing period, but they will never see an opportunity to improve efficiency if past behavior is the only baseline for “normal”.

WaterSmart’s Home Water Reports address this issue by offering water customers a glimpse into the real behavior of other members of their community (a descriptive social norm), and then holding up individuals’ behavior in comparison. It is well documented that comparative feedback is more impactful and longer lasting on consumptive behavior than historical feedback, and outperforms messages that tell people how or why to conserve, or how much money they will save. At WaterSmart, we see it working every day.

Looking deeper, the social comparison on the Water Report is super-powered in a number of ways. First, the comparison group is relevant and credible because—through data-analytics—we’ve narrowed it to a smaller cohort of similar homes within the population. Secondly we’ve stripped away the jargon of the bill, and instead offer a single metric—gallons per day—that can be compared consistently anytime, anywhere, regardless of local rates or billing cycle length.

So the next logical step might be to add these data points to the utility bill, wash our hands and be done. But just because information is on the bill does not mean that customers will see it or understand it. The water utility bill is already crowded with transactional information, possibly for multiple municipal charges. There is only so much information it can convey before readers’ working memory fills up and their eyes glaze over.

The Water Report succeeds in driving insight and behavior-change by keeping things simple. Through visual hierarchy we focus the flow of the reader’s attention. Judicious use of contrast through size and color emphasize important aspects of the data. Commentary on the displays is succinct and limited to insights for the reader. When the layout shows—instead of tells—it is very easy to absorb the important information at a glance.

Another reason not to put too many expectations on the utility bill is that it is caught in a purgatory of legacy technology and institutional barriers. Therefore feature changes do not happen quickly, if at all. A nationwide survey in 2003 found that the majority of water utilities had not made any changes to their bill form since 1995. In 2003 only 6% had any kind of multi-month historical chart. This is in stark contrast to the dynamic content and weekly incremental improvements provided by today’s typical SaaS company.

As digital color printing becomes more cost-efficient and software becomes more powerful, this stagnated rate of improvement may change. It appears that electrical utilities have adapted more rapidly. ComEd, the midwest electrical supplier, recently completed an impressive effort to overhaul their bill. Through crowdsourcing, surveys, focus groups and user testing, they allowed “customer needs and values” to drive the design, rather than “internal viewpoints”. The new bill’s crisp charts and thoughtful use of white space are a step in the right direction for clearer customer communication.

So far we have discussed displays of consumption information as mechanisms for motivating behavior change. But we also need to look at reducing friction for the target behavior. Busy homeowners and small business owners may feel powerless to conserve water. Due to a lack of clear price signals on the bill, they can come to view the bill as a fixed necessity, unaffected by changes in their consumptive behavior. The total on the bill is a ‘black box’ of all their many water-related activities, and they likely don’t know which to focus on. If they do, they may assume that changes are difficult or costly.

Water Reports address this by disaggregating the water user’s consumption back into its component parts (e.g. showers, toilet flushes, laundry, outdoor irrigation). Though it is an estimate, it allows us to highlight the highest likely uses, and attach tangible gallons and dollars to specific actions. This is critical because water customers will often guess that a visually salient behavior, such as showering, is driving their consumption, when the culprit is in fact a passive use, such as an old washing machine. Identifying discrete, small steps makes the larger goal more attainable.

Water utility bills are a great tool for accounting, but not for public outreach. Much can be done to improve their design and functionality to help water customers better understand their use. But at a certain point, as a communication platform, we must think ‘outside the bill’.

Editorial Research water-use efficiency behavioral water efficiency changing behavior consumer behavior water bill bill design