Water Journal : Water Journal September 2013
september 2013 water 41 Feature article A majority of customers told researchers they were satisfied with how Western Water had managed the boil water notice. A few were not satisfied, either because they felt communication and support were inadequate, or because they were unhappy about the long period of inconvenience. Although the length of the boil water notice was outside Western Water’s control, customers did not necessarily make a distinction between their feelings about the incident itself, and their feelings about Western Water’s handling of it. Some people also reported they now had less confidence in the quality of their tap water after the incident. In a few cases this has had a significant impact: “Very cautious now. No longer drink the tap water and still using bottled water for food preparation. If it’s happened once, it could happen again.” An analysis of affected customers’ water usage during and after the boil water notice period showed only 15 per cent of households had lower usage in the May billing period in 2012 compared to the same period in 2011. However, any impact on water usage may be affected by other factors, such as weather and changes in water restrictions. ImprovIng Western Water’s response The research has been invaluable in identifying where Western Water can improve its communications and customer engagement in such incidents. When asked for their suggestions on how Western Water should handle such incidents, customers identified their main expectations as: • Being notified the same day the health risk is identified; • The use of multiple communication channels to ensure everyone affected is contacted; • Open communication – for Western Water to give the facts regarding level of risk, cause of contamination and what is being done to rectify it, as well as detailed information about specific uses of water; • Regular, timely updates with specific information; • Being informed quickly when the notice is lifted; • Recognition of the inconvenience caused; support, advice and empathy. The key focus will remain on early notice and regular updates, even if some customers may feel communications are “over the top”. To ensure people receive the message quickly, it is important to use as many communication channels as possible, so there are many opportunities for the message to get through. A letter with “Important Notice Regarding Your Water Supply” in large red letters may be taken seriously by some customers, yet discarded as junk mail by others. Likewise, not all customers will be home when staff members visit in person. Phone, email, SMS, social media and even word of mouth – asking people to give their neighbour a call or pop over when they get home – are all useful channels. In this regard, it is important to have detailed customer contact information and good systems in place to access customers’ contact information quickly. The research found that, although Western Water had supplied detailed information, some customers did not absorb the detail, or tended to forget advice in relation to specific uses, meaning a more creative approach may be needed. Western Water has since updated its fact sheets on boil water notices, creating a range of clear, easy-to-read information sheets covering a range of topics in detail – for example: water for pets; making tea or coffee; is it OK to have a shower if I have a cut or abrasion? Another innovation Western Water has now introduced is packs of sticky notes showing the message “Remember to boil” in large red letters, which will be distributed to customers in future incidents, to be stuck around the home as a prompt. The research also found that a common approach to all customers, no matter how robust, will not satisfy everyone, and a tailored approach is needed for vulnerable customers, with extra support and help. The researchers concluded that individuals’ perception of risk and sense of control over a situation influenced how the boil water notice messages were processed and acted on. In that sense, by increasing support for more vulnerable customers, it may be possible to increase their sense of personal control and improve behaviour change outcomes. Quickly identifying those customers who have special needs (e.g. a family member with health problems) and taking an individual approach to meeting those needs have been identified as important factors in future incidents of this kind. Although most customers perceived the incident was handled well by Western Water, there are areas for improvement, and in-depth, independent customer research was an effective way of identifying these and formulating actions for future incidents. WJ the authors Kylie smith (email: Kylie.Smith@westernwater. com.au) is Western Water’s Senior Media Advisor. Her career in journalism has included working for regional and metropolitan newspapers. peter Donlon (email: peter.donlon@ westernwater.com.au) is Western Water’s General Manager, Customer and Community Relations.
Water Journal August 2013
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