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Getting to know customers better to meet their wishes

Challenging governance research for Vitens

Customer excellence is of paramount importance for Vitens. To this end, KWR explored how Vitens can best attune its activities to customer wishes, perceptions and experiences concerning the drinking water infrastructure. This involved challenging governance research, because the provision of drinking water has for generations been almost taken for granted and is not usually a source of worry for customers; nor do they consciously think much about their wishes when it comes to the supply of drinking water in the future. The research however demonstrated that getting to know one’s customers better is indeed possible, and that their perceptions and needs with regard to the future of drinking water and its infrastructure are extremely varied.

Develop relationship with customers

Water companies increasingly express the desire to listen better to their customers. Vitens has even declared customer excellence to be one of its key strategic objectives. Although the supply of good and reliable drinking water is, without exception, seen as crucial, the Dutch are generally little concerned about their drinking water provision due to the fact that it has functioned well for generations. After all, if the problems are few and the availability of sufficient safe tap water can be taken for granted, what should customers be worried about? This makes it hard for them to think in terms of future challenges, to consider possible alternatives – regarding quality and sustainability for instance – and to make their related wishes and preferences explicit. Nonetheless, investing in knowledge to gain more insight into the perceptions and experiences of customers is often rewarding. Existing research indicates that a sensitivity to customer wishes and preferences can result in greater customer satisfaction, support for changes and/or new initiatives, and a positive image for the water company. Moreover, it gives the drinking water companies a base upon which to develop a relationship, in which citizens can actually actively participate and share their thinking, thus enabling the generation of possibly better and more broadly-based ideas.

Phase 1: Explore ideas about drinking water supply

In the first phase of the research, KWR explored the perceptions and experiences of customers regarding the current and possible future drinking water provision. A meeting was organised in which more than 20 customers from Vitens’s supply area set to work on mind maps concerning drinking water. They then reflected at length about the desirability of four possible future scenarios, which had already been developed in a 2014 research project: ‘Drinking Water Infrastructure of the Future’. The results showed that customers have quite varied views about the future of the drinking water provision.

Phase 2: Customer perspective and willingness to pay

In the second half of 2015, the research focused at first on the identification of these different customer perspectives. What concerns do people have about the future of their drinking water provision? What is their view of wastewater reuse or other innovations, both in and around the home? How do they perceive their own and the water company’s responsibility with regard to the future protection of water sources or the management of water treatment? Based on this knowledge, Vitens is able to make decisions on how the company can meet the wishes and needs of the different customer groups. Whether customers are actually prepared to pay for the fulfilment of specific wishes and needs was studied through willingness-to-pay research, carried out on a representative customer group within the supply area. The results of the research enable Vitens to think about the possibilities of promoting customer satisfaction through its asset management process into the future as well.