Customer satisfaction in the water industry will not be achieved by simply “providing a largely invisible public service,” Ofwat’s senior director of corporate communications has warned.

Speaking at Utility Week’s Water Customer Conference in Birmingham today (16 January), Claire Forbes said customers want to feel they know their water company.

She suggested that in the future the visibility of companies, relationship building and perceived relevance will be a “driver of customer satisfaction”.

“Ensuring a reliable and consistent service is becoming more, not less challenging for companies,” Forbes said, highlighting the extreme weather events of last year.

In a “new endeavour” for the regulator, she outlined how Ofwat has been talking to customers to ensure it does not become “disconnected”.

She said: “In the five years that I’ve been at Ofwat, we’ve not talked directly to customers in any kind of sustained way, preferring instead to leave companies to do so.

“And while that approach quite rightly leaves engagement with customers firmly in the hands of companies, it does risk the regulator becoming disconnected from the customers we all serve.”

Ofwat’s “Water Stories” engagement activity has found that people care more about water than many people in the sector may believe.

Forbes said: “I’ve often heard it said within the water sector that customers aren’t interested in water. That they don’t want to know about where water comes from, how’s it treated or how it’s taken away. That customers’ only real interest in water is in the cost of the bill and that beyond that, people just aren’t bothered.

“And yes, in one sense, I think that’s true – none of us want to have to think about water when we’re getting in the shower in the morning, or when we’re flushing the loo.

“But one of the things we’ve learnt through ‘Water Stories’ is that, when the conversation is started in the right way, people have a lot to say about water.”

Forbes said there was one phrase which “came up again and again” in the stories Ofwat heard: “water is everything”.

She added: “We may think of water as a utility, but I don’t think we would have received the same variety of stories about broadband, or that people would claim: ‘electricity is everything’.”

Ofwat visited different communities and customer groups across England and Wales to ask people about water, which Forbes described as a “learning curve” for the regulator.

She questioned that if water is everything, what does that mean for customer satisfaction, drawing reference to Amazon, which she described as a company that “tries to be everything” and aims to be the most “customer centric”.

She added: “And yet without even trying, water companies have what Amazon must yearn for; relevance in every aspect of people’s lives, from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed. Unlike Amazon, water truly is everything.”

Forbes suggested water companies should move away from a transactional understanding of customer satisfaction to one that is “much broader and more inclusive”, taking account of how people feel as much as the mechanics of the service offering.

Water companies should be a “known force within communities” and be more “visible” but she warned “with visibility comes challenge.”

“Customers are taking a greater interest in where their money is going.  Questions are being asked in the press, on social media and in parliament about dividend payments, tax and executive pay.

“Visibility demands openness and transparency; and education requires a willingness to answer questions and be open to challenge.”

What to read next