After more than two years of a pandemic and resulting inflation, it may not come as a surprise that a six-year streak of improving or maintaining customer satisfaction with residential water utilities has come to an end, according to the J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.
As J.D. Power notes, “Rate relief efforts put in place during the pandemic came to an end just as the forces of inflation have driven a significant increase in the monthly bills of residential customers. As a result, customer satisfaction declined in every factor of the study.”
The most comprehensive “voice of the customer” study of its kind is in its seventh year measuring customer satisfaction among customers of 90 utilities serving at least 400,000 customers. Overall satisfaction is measured by examining 33 attributes in six categories: quality and reliability; price; conservation; billing and payment; communications; and customer service. The 2022 study is based on the responses of 33,054 residential water utility customers conducted in four waves from June 2021 through March 2022.
The 2022 study marks the first time that customer satisfaction declined since 2016. Prior to the pandemic, respondents in the 2019 study reported that, among other things, concern about water quality issues was steadily improving, which had a positive effect on customer satisfaction. In 2021, a combination of major regional service interruptions, significant uptick in water consumption, higher utility bills, and a lack of effective communication during the pandemic did not drive satisfaction down, although it remained flat, unchanged from 2020. What’s different this year?
Research, surveys, and studies from credible sources like J.D. Power help identify emerging trends and shifts in the industry and your environment. Utilities and public agencies that understand their customers’ attitudes, behaviors and preferences are more equipped to respond, innovate, and pivot in ways that build trust, garner support for rate increases and infrastructure projects, and increase overall customer satisfaction.
The water industry faces ever-increasing needs for infrastructure investments, making communication imperative. Public outreach is critical for utilities when they need to inform consumers about rate changes, water supply issues, and gain stakeholder feedback. It’s worth repeating: Customer satisfaction declines were most pronounced in the areas of communications and price.
Communications is your silver bullet to building trust and garnering support, but are you communicating or merely informing? Well-known American journalist Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986) wisely said, “The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
If you’re about to start a rate study and increase rates in the next 6-18 months, there are several things you can do right now to successfully communicate, build or restore trust, and ensure a successful rate increase.
Timely, effective, and two-way communication with stakeholders is critical for developing and maintaining trust. Successfully collecting and analyzing customer insights will aid you in making data-informed decisions and increase opportunities to eliminate barriers and engage customers. But it can’t only happen when you raise rates or suffer a notice of violation.
Building and maintaining trust and credibility happens over time and we can never rest because as the Dutch proverb says, “Trust comes by foot and leaves on horseback.” In 2022 the horse is a Mustang GT V-8. Take heart in knowing those who’ve built the relationship will have an easier, quicker recovery than those who don’t.
Raftelis’ strategic communications team members are all accredited in public relations and have spent decades in municipal and utility communication, both as consultants and as leaders of communications and public affairs programs for large and small local governments and utilities across the country.
We specialize in strategic communication counsel, public engagement, and community involvement, and can provide the guidance, structure, strategies, and tactics to help make your new revenue request, program, or infrastructure project successful by avoiding costly delays and reputational crises. Learn more about Raftelis’ Strategic Communications practice.
About the 2022 U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study:
The U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study measures satisfaction among residential customers of 90 water utilities that deliver water to at least 400,000 customers and is reported in four geographic regions and two size categories. For more information about the U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, visit the J.D. Power website.