Customer-first outlook key to successful infrastructure

Posted 19 September 2016

Kitchen sinkWater utilities have work to do in achieving higher customer perception and satisfaction, but the good news is there’s plenty of opportunity for those prepared to embrace an innovative mindset.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership found just 48% of participants rated water and sewerage services as customer focused, with the sector falling behind ride-sharing (87%), private hospitals (86%), airports (75%) and public schools (68%). 

The survey results supported findings in the centre’s latest policy outlook paper, Shifting Australia’s Infrastructure Mindset to the long game, in which Better Infrastructure Initiative Executive Director Garry Bowditch calls for government and industry to put the customer first when looking at infrastructure development.

“Community and customer expectations are rising. Static physical infrastructure assets need to evolve into more dynamic service centres that cater for a range of evolving preferences from consumers,” Bowditch said. 

One of the primary focuses of the paper is to flag just how important customer expectations and satisfaction are to the future of infrastructure development, Bowditch said. 

“The principle of the paper, which we are seeking to embed in the industry mindset, is that customers matter a great deal. The very fabric of our society – whether it is in water, transportation or energy – relies not on good community support, but profound community support,” he said.

“Infrastructure development goes to the heart of our living standards and the ability for us to maintain and further build on our wellbeing, and also our economic prosperity.

“There seems to be a lot of rhetoric regarding the customer, but both government and industry are not really matching that rhetorical flourish with material initiatives to fulfil it.”

Although there is room for improvement across many sectors, Bowditch said the survey confirmed the underlying key to achieving higher customer satisfaction: transparency.  

“When we look at the survey, and the difference between those groups that are perceived to have very good customer satisfaction and those that are doing less well, it boils down to this very fundamental point,” he said.  

“Uber does it very well. As a leader in customer perception and satisfaction, Uber provides the customer with transparency into the systems with which they are interacting. 

“Providing data which is highly bespoke to the individual was a marker for customer satisfaction that went through the top five, too.”

Bowditch said one of the main challenges facing water utilities is communicating the value of their services and behind-the-scenes work to customers. 

“One of the difficulties is that both energy and water do not involve a high level of human contact. As a result, it is more difficult to tell the narrative of the investment that has been happening. Often, with energy and water, you don’t contact the utility until something goes wrong,” he said.

“Are there legitimate ways utilities can deepen and broaden their customer contact? Given that water is a life-giving and life-saving commodity and service, customers need a much deeper and richer understanding of how it impacts them.

“What we are really looking to achieve is for governments and industry to be agnostic towards the building of new infrastructure, and to be focused more rigorously on procuring infrastructure from the point of view of a customer service outcome.” 

Bowditch uses Uber as an example of how putting the customer first pays off, not only for satisfaction rates, but for the service providers provision outlook. 

“Uber are driven by the fact that if you don’t like Uber, all you have to do is delete the app. They do everything they can to make sure that you don’t delete their app,” he said. 

“Uber of course has the benefit that they can change their entire platform overnight. The physical aspects of water are not substitutable, but what are the complimentary softer issues associated with the analytics, the data and the transparency that utilities can give to the customer?”

While water utilities have obvious limitations regarding how they provide services to customers, Bowditch said adopting a more innovative mindset regarding customer interaction could take the sector a long way. 

“Communication is about more than just writing a letter and it’s about more than having a website. There’s a richness of opportunity there that is not being exploited,” he said.

“How would water communicate with its customers if it were like Uber and ran the risk of being deleted overnight by their customers? I bet they would do it quite differently.”