Best practices in customer communication from top American water utilities

All utilities wrestle with customer communication issues. It’s a new world for this industry, but we’re all getting better at the task. At American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) annual conference, one session tackled how well water utilities, specifically, are working to put together best practices for these important communiques.

First, utilities need to partner up for help getting the word out and the money in.

Denver Water’s community outreach program tackles everything from lead services to vulnerable population outreach to line replacements.

Melissa Essex Elliot, the utility’s Director of Public Affairs, shared details with the AWWA audience, including the work they did with a partner: the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.

That particular partnership includes a revolving loan fund to help property owners with replacements, but Denver Water also works with elected officials, state regulators, the county health departments, housing authorities, regional EPA, public schools, neighborhood associations, child care providers, foundations, environmental organizations, metro area utilities, plumbers and even home inspectors.

Elliot suggested that no partnership should be turned down if you can make it work to get the community involved and engaged.

Kelley Dearing Smith, VP of Communications & Marketing at Louisville Water Company, called them “stakeholders” rather than partners, but her message was like Elliot’s at its heart: getting the local public health department involved in communication, along with elected leaders and schools and daycares.

Louisville water also partners with Homeserve (the home warranty people) to complete the utility-to-customer circle.

Second, utilities need to realize that communication isn’t a finite task. It’s constant and ongoing.

“The only time your customers see you cannot just be when something breaks or when you need money,” added Louisville’s Dearing Smith to Elliot’s point. “We’re in the community every day. We take drinking stations out into the community. We’re on social media as well.”

Dearing Smith suggested getting ahead of the game by telling your story—or stories. The ones about your scientists, about your treatment plant, about the benefits you bring to the community.

With Elliot’s utility, Denver Water, they tell their point with a specialized website (Denverwatertap.org) that uploads new articles nearly daily with content journalism mixed into the feed.

Third, think about your brand.

Yes, this was a utility talking about branding.

Kelley Dearing Smith notes that the utility has branded it’s tap water as “Pure Tap,” and they run that marketing program against bottled water in their community.

“The water is so good it has a name in Louisville,” Dearing Smith said, whose branding program builds customer trust and continues to build out on that trust with every new branding moment. (The tagline this summer on the Pure Tap Twitter feed is #PURETAPSUMMER.)

With those three notes in mind, Elliot and Dearing Smith suggested these tidbits to keep your branding and customer communication clear as clean water (and forward-thinking, too):

  • Proactively communicate.
  • Keep your message simple and honest.
  • Give consumers options to get information that will reduce their risk.
  • Go digital and go digital daily.
  • Tell customers that your program will keep evolving (and your door will remain open).
  • Develop visuals—make things interesting to the eye as well as informative.


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