May 25, 2016

Robust Water Infrastructure Essential to Satisfaction

Water quality and reliability are critical for customers, according to J.D. Power study

water, service, quality, satisfaction, customer, utility, study, JD Power

Considering the high stakes of public health associated with residential water delivery and quality, the state of a water utility’s infrastructure is critical to customer satisfaction. It is also a crucial factor in a utility’s ability to garner support from customers and other stakeholders for improvements, according to a J.D. Power 2016 Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

The inaugural study measured satisfaction among residential customers of 84 water utilities each delivering water to a population of at least 400,000 people and reported in four geographic regions: Midwest, Northeast, South and West. Overall satisfaction was measured by examining 33 attributes within six factors: delivery, price, billing and payment, conservation, communications and customer service. Satisfaction was calculated on a 1,000-point scale.

Infrastructure that is not maintained can cause residential delivery interruptions or create water quality problems such as bad taste and bad smell, the two issues that impact satisfaction the most. Delivery satisfaction among the 9% of customers experiencing problems with water taste (646) and among the 6% of customers experiencing smell issues (636) is more than 100 points lower than among those not experiencing any issues (785). More than one-third (34%) of customers indicate having experienced some sort of residential water delivery or quality issue within the last six months: the most common issue was low pressure, and the least common was mineral content, including poisonous lead.

According to Regulatory Research Associates, it is estimated that over the next 20 years, investments between $385 billion and $1.3 trillion will be required to make the infrastructure improvements necessary to maintain the highest quality of water and residential delivery.

“Delivering water that is safe to use and drink is the top priority for water utilities. However, many utilities are facing the decay of century-old infrastructures with insufficient funds necessary to make improvements,” said Andrew Heath, senior director of the utility and infrastructure practice at J.D. Power. “When facing the need for multi-billion dollar investments, it’s no longer good enough to just focus on the water system; it is imperative that water utilities also focus on understanding their customers, who can often be their most effective advocates when it comes to building up support for necessary improvements.”

Study findings also show satisfaction is not driven by location, but rather by the quality of the service from their water utility. Both high- and low-performing utilities are found throughout the U.S. and throughout each region in the nation.

 

Following are additional findings of the 2016 study.

  • Price by Region: One-fourth of customers are not aware of the cost of their monthly water utility service. The customer-reported average monthly cost by region is $79 in the West; $75 in the Northeast; $63 in the South; and $60 in the Midwest.
  • E-Bill Satisfaction Higher than Paper Bill: Billing and payment satisfaction among the 31% of customers who receive their bill electronically is much higher than among those who receive a paper bill (792 vs. 746).  
  • Communication Recall Builds Satisfying Relationships: Water utilities that communicate with their customers are more likely to build a satisfying customer relationship. Overall satisfaction is higher when a customer recalls a communication in the last six months from their water utility than when they don’t recall a communication (737 vs. 675).
  • Awareness of Infrastructure Investment Increases Satisfaction: When customers are aware of their utility’s efforts to improve or replace the old infrastructure, conservation satisfaction is 734, compared with 650 when they are not aware. The same holds true when customers are familiar with their utility’s efforts to improve water quality (749 vs. 599).
  • Answering Customers’ Questions on First Contact: One key to achieving high customer service satisfaction is answering a customer’s question the first time they make contact, compared with making two or more contacts. Among those contacting by phone, satisfaction is 134 points higher when the customer’s question is answered on the first contact, compared to when two or more calls are required for an answer (831 vs. 697). Similarly, when contacts are made online, satisfaction is 91 points higher when questions are answered on the first contact, compared to when two or more contacts are required (827 vs. 736).

The following utilities rank highest in customer satisfaction in their respective regions. Notably, two of the utilities are investor owned and two are publicly owned.

  • Midwest: Illinois American Water (investor owned)
  • Northeast: Monroe County Water Authority (publicly owned)            
  • South: Miami-Dade County (publicly owned) 
  • West: California Water Service (investor owned)         

The 2016 Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study is based on more than 20,000 responses, representing more than 83 million residential customers of the 84 largest water utilities across the United States. The study was fielded in March 2016.

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