Transparent communication to maintain and boost customer confidence

Drinking water customers have great confidence in the safety of Dutch drinking water and the drinking water companies but, when asked, do have a need for greater transparency about drinking water quality and the interpretation of such data. This is revealed by a detailed customer study, combining quantitative and qualitative methodologies. On 15 May 2019 the results of the study were discussed with representatives of water companies, water laboratories and knowledge institutes at a well-attended meeting at KWR in Nieuwegein.

Risk perception

More and more often people are saying that organisations must be transparent. To what extent is this also the case for drinking water companies? What does the customer want to know? How detailed does the communication about a subject such as drinking water quality have to be? And is it feasible to be open and at the same time not arouse any unnecessary fears? To answer these questions KWR conducted a risk perception survey. In addition to a literature review and an analysis of different drinking water company websites, questionnaires were completed by more than a thousand customers, interviews were held with both customers and drinking water company communication specialists, and group discussions were held with a total of 40 customers.

Differences between customers in terms of needs and risk perceptions

Different customer groups appear to have different wishes, needs and perceptions, of any risks, for example. This subjective risk perception often differs from technical (objective) risk calculations, a phenomenon also known as the ‘risk perception gap’. Other striking conclusions from the survey are:

  • The overwhelming majority (90%) of drinking water customers consider Dutch drinking water to be safe. Several factors underlie this, with confidence in the drinking water companies themselves in particular standing out.
  • A quarter (23%) of drinking water customers say they sometimes worry about drinking water quality. They are mainly people who have very strong feelings about their own health (those with the ‘quality & health concerned’ perspective).

Figure 1. Breakdown of customer perceptions ‘I sometimes worry about the quality and safety of Dutch tap water’.


  • One in five drinking water customers (19%) perceives drinking water containing a small amount of non-natural substances falling within legal standards to be unsafe. Well-educated drinking water customers with the quality & health concerned perspective doubt the development and topicality of the standards. A quarter of drinking water customers does not know that non-natural substances occur in drinking water.
  • Using transparent communication, customers on the one hand become aware of the occurrence of non-natural substances in drinking water, with a slightly negative effect, but on the other also gain greater confidence in the conduct of the sector.

Unanimous about need for transparency

Even though customers differ widely in their wishes regarding the type, the level of detail and the amount of information they want to receive, they appear almost unanimous about their great need for transparent information on drinking water quality. Not because they will actually read the series of measurements of all the substances, but because they see it as a sign of reliability that this information is available and nothing is withheld. The drinking water sector is already working to provide greater transparency and the results of this survey show it is an important factor in maintaining and boosting customer confidence. To put the knowledge into practice, the researchers have formulated nine communication tools, which can be found from today.