View from the top: Water resilience makes for happier customers

Greater efficiency offers water companies an opportunity to deepen customer engagement.

There’s no doubt about it – drought is good for business if you’re a water efficiency NGO like Waterwise. I reflected on this fact in a car at 5.30am recently, as I was going to Bewl Reservoir in Kent to talk about drought for BBC’s Breakfast news programme. It’s officially been a dry winter in parts of England, folks. All Waterwise’s energy is focused on wasting less water every day, everywhere. But the media are particularly interested at the moment.

Water efficiency is central to improving the resilience of water services – customers care about this. It’s essential in protecting the environment and the ecosystem, which customers also care about. And it helps to reduce carbon ­– and energy bills.

All the UK water companies are doing good work on water efficiency. The scale and innovation have both significantly increased since I left Waterwise four years ago to go into Ofwat and lead its work on resilience. But my vision for the sector and for Waterwise, to which I’ve returned as managing director, is that we can aim high – higher than we are now.

I think water company chief executives should be asking their teams what really ambitious demand management looks like. And Waterwise is all about providing the tools and challenges to do this, not just shouting from the sidelines. For example, what would it look like if company x employed 30 behavioural scientists as part of its new skills mix? What would the art of the possible be?

This is a new science for water companies, which 30 years ago relied to a large extent on engineers (still important!). In-house expertise on behaviour change could make a significant dent in a company’s supply demand gap now and in the future.

The water sector needs to be more customer-led. I doubt you’d find a UK water company chief executive who’d disagree. The customer journey should be being co-created with customers themselves, with water companies continuously engaging and adapting – listening as well as telling. I’d put money on the customer journey with Morrisons, Amazon, Transport for London and iTunes being more responsive than the one people get from their water company. But it should be easier with water than it is with other utilities.

I don’t care about energy, for example – I just want it to make my toast. And I don’t have an emotional attachment to my broadband – I just need it to work. But with water we touch and taste it every day, and we love our local streams and rivers. So water efficiency can be used to increase customer participation as well as resilience. I’m delighted that the UK water companies have joined Waterwise and sector resilience leader Jean Spencer in a leadership group to do exactly this.

Waterwise launched its UK water efficiency strategy in June, with delivery actions shared across the sector. This will set out what the UK could look like if we all upped our game on water efficiency – if we really valued water.

And the challenge isn’t just for water companies. It’s for all of us as customers. It’s for the new water retailers. It’s for Ofwat and other regulators, who need in their regulatory frameworks to allow innovation to fail. And partnerships delivering multiple benefits need to be squared with a regulatory tendency to draw a straight line between what water customers pay for and its narrow benefit. Because we’re all members of so many different ‘tribes’ (mum, school governor, Gogglebox viewer); we’re energy, transport and food customers as well as water customers; and we’re citizens too.

Finally, the challenge is also for government. We really should not in this day and age be building homes that waste water.