For the most part, the water sector has managed the beginning of the crisis well. Companies were quick off the mark to announce a variety of payment holidays and support for vulnerable customers.
In many ways, this should come as no surprise. Off the back of a very thorough and robust PR19 process, water companies have been drilled into adopting a customer-first approach, with transparent and continuous engagement becoming an expected norm, rather than a token box-ticking exercise. The covid-19 outbreak has accelerated this.
By the very nature of its business, the water sector cannot stop.
As employees work and stay at home, as the 20-second handwashing guidance is adhered to, and as frontline services are put under increasing pressure, demand during the lockdown is going up and therefore water companies will need to keep to the “business as usual” message as much as possible – with future development being no exception.
Pushing forward with infrastructure developments and improvements is important in order to keep pipeline schedules progressing and hitting key deadlines.
But with the government lockdown in full swing, companies within the sector are having to adapt to engaging with their customers and stakeholders.
Pre-planning application consultations are one thing that’s been affected. Whilst engaging with stakeholders, residents and community representatives is vital in securing community input and potential support for the development of infrastructure, this has become even harder when face-to-face activity cannot take place.
Digital engagement is now the norm
Digital engagement is now a necessity for the sector. Community consultations have no option but to be moved online, with tools such as video conferencing, social media and interactive websites all vital to implementing thorough and meaningful consultation.
Virtual exhibitions can replace the dusty village hall, utilising live chatrooms or online chatbots to answer the questions of attendees, whilst videos and animated fly-throughs can explain complex subject matter in an easy-to-understand manner. Telephone-based and snail mail engagement can be reserved for harder-to-reach communities with limited digital access or understanding.
The added bonus of online consultations is that everything is recorded. The number of attendees, video downloads, questions and conversations can all be analysed via a website’s analytics package, helping to create an even more comprehensive and robust Statement of Community Engagement when needed.
The day-to-day customer service plans of water companies will also need to adapt.
Contact centres are currently receiving unprecedented numbers of calls. During these times, social media gives that extra help, a 12th man (if you’ll excuse the football reference) when support staff are already stretched. Comprehensive use of AI through ChatBots can also reduce workload for contact centres.
Clear, consistent, and engaging social media content, delivered in a timely manner, will help drive down inbound calls, as digital signposts direct people to the information they need and keep them updated with an ever-changing landscape.
Will digital engagement replace customer challenge groups?
In its 2019 strategy document, “Time to act, together’, Ofwat encouraged water companies to “have a more meaningful relationship with customers and communities.” This was echoed by the UK Water Partnership in their ‘Digital Water’ white paper, stating that digital had the “potential to revolutionise the water sector and its interaction with customers.”
Many companies rely on the tried and tested Customer Challenge Group (CCG) model, which has proven to be a success in ensuring that the focus of business planning and company reporting remains ‘customer first’.
However, criticisms of the model have included the expense of setting-up and maintaining such groups, as well as issues regarding transparency and representation.
Digitally transforming engagement strategies could change this. Moving CCGs to online conferencing, or indeed replacing the model with digital focus groups which are invited to virtual seminars, presentations or exhibitions could ensure that water companies engage with a wider and more representative cross-section of society.
Digital tools have always been a channel used to do this. However, following the coronavirus pandemic, this nice “add-on” to communications plans across the sector has now turned into a “must have” and it is not likely to change after the lock downs have ended.
Whatever the future, BECG has launched an extensive range of digital tools to help companies and groups navigate consultation and engagement online. To find out more, visit: www.becg.com/digital-consultation