One man’s view of the water industry.
The chief executive of Auckland CCO Watercare signals his thinking on a wide range of issues and challenges for both his organisation and the water sector as a whole. Here are some redacted highlights from Raveen Jaduram’s speech at the Water New Zealand annual conference.
Raveen says trust is the most important issue that the water sector has faced for a very long time “and we’re not doing much about it”. He says the sector must carry the blame for any lack of trust and the most important legacy everyone working in the sector can leave behind is to help improve communities’ trust in water.
When Watercare surveyed a group of customers, just over 40 percent of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that they trust the organisation.
“That’s not a good figure,” says Raveen. “It should be ‘do you trust the water you drink?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Do you trust the people who supply you with the water?’ ‘Yes’. That’s the vision. That’s where we want to be.”
PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF A CCO
Raveen notes that it is in his interest to make sure the ratepayers of Auckland think highly of Auckland Council.
“It doesn’t pay for me to say we’re different: we’re Watercare. Because for our customers, we’re the same thing. All the campaigns about how we are a separate company, but owned by council, are not going to work. That effort is wasted.”
Raveen notes that incidents beyond Watercare’s control can reduce trust in his organisation. Watercare’s new vision statement is that it aims ‘to be trusted by communities for exceptional performance every day’.
This wording is deliberately broad, he says. “It doesn’t talk about water. It doesn’t talk about Auckland. It doesn’t talk about price. It just says ‘communities’: not even ‘customers’.”
Monopolies need to be customer-centric, says Raveen. He recounts how one of his directors asked why Watercare should become “extremely customer centric” when its customers have no choice. “My answer? That’s exactly why we are going to do it: because trust is being lost.”
He says a recent survey asked what one service people could not do without for a whole day. Most people said wifi or the internet.
“Yet very few of our customers could have a day without water.” He says Watercare’s service is so reliable that people don’t know what it means to be without water for 24 hours.
“The whole process is counter-intuitive, if you think about it. The better the service we provide, the cheaper the service we provide, the more people turn around and say we’re not doing a great job.”
BEING TAKEN FOR GRANTED
“We think that all the good work we are doing will, by itself, be how we are judged,” says Raveen. He notes that water services are highly valued in third-world communities where the alternative for many people may have been to collect water from a stream four kilometres away.
“They will value you… But in an urban environment that doesn’t work.”
He says the water sector needs to get its communities and customers to understand the service it is providing.
THE COST OF WATER
“Customers don’t know the price of what it is that we supply, let alone the value of it,” says Raveen, who again argues that it is up to organisations such as his to get such messages across.
Water suppliers also carry responsibility to clearly message that water continues to be free. “We charge people for collecting, treating, storing and transporting water. Otherwise, in New Zealand it is free.”
Watercare has recast its definition of a customer. “A year ago we would have said we have two types of customers: mums and dads, and industry. Now if you speak to Watercare staff, they will tell you we have lots of customers.”
Raveen goes on to explain that the traditional, and logical, definition of a ‘customer’ was a person who paid Watercare directly for its services.
He has expanded that definition to include everyone who receives water from the organisation, whether they are landlords or tenants in properties.
“So when they ring us up and say, ‘I’ve got a problem with my water pressure or I’ve got a sewer overflow in my back yard’, we don’t ask them ‘are you the bill payer’.”
This is a sharp contrast to the practices of many telecommunications firms, for instance, that will first ask if they are speaking with the person who pays an invoice.
“If you’re not, they don’t talk to you. We don’t do that. We say we will come and fix the problem.”
This means that Watercare includes in its definition of its customers, not only consumers but also a raft of other people who may be involved in a property such as developers, agents, surveyors, engineers and lawyers.
“We have to be an inclusive organisation: we have to engage. We haven’t done that in the past. We’ve come from an environment where we tell people, rather than we ask. But the world is changing: people google, they find pollutants in the water, in the receiving waters… and so they are concerned. We need to engage and then we need to educate.”
Raveen calls for a cultural change within the water industry, arguing that organisations need to collaborate more. “We don’t have to do the traditional Kiwi thing that we will reinvent everything from zero base.”
He calls for more efficiency throughout the sector. Speaking about Watercare, he says internal processes need to be totally revamped.
“We have process for the sake of a process. The starting point in Watercare right now is… if we don’t have to be involved, we shouldn’t be. If the touchpoints in the process are multiple, we have to question ourselves… Why can’t it be a one-point contact?”
DISBANDING THE CALL CENTRE
Raveen says when customers call Watercare, they want to have a conversation with an informed member of staff, not feel as though they are answering a Q&A form being read out from a computer.
“If someone rings and wants to talk about their bill, who are the best people to talk about that? The people in the billing team. If someone rings and says their meter’s not working or the pressure’s not right, who are the best people to talk to them? The people who know what a water meter looks like.
“So we’ve got rid of our call centre and put people back into teams where they work with, and understand, specialists in those areas.”
BIDDING FOR WORK
Over the next 10 years, Watercare plans to spend $400-$500 million per annum on capital projects. Feedback from consultants and contractors is that they are spending a lot of money bidding for such work. In response, Watercare is engaging with them to see how it can reduce the cost of bidding.
“We’ve been an arrogant client. And that’s not unique to Watercare. All large organisations at some point will say they are an arrogant client because you get to a point where you believe you are the master and others are subservient.”
The term “water conservation” has been eliminated from Watercare’s vocabulary as surveys show customers believe Auckland’s high rainfall makes this unnecessary. Instead, Watercare talks about “not wasting” water – a concept that Kiwis relate to very well.
Raveen warns that while the industry’s challenges centre around aging infrastructure, growth, affordability, technological advances and lack of resources, major disruption will come from customers.
“Why? Because they’re exposed to all sorts of things from different providers. They can do things on their phones. If they can’t do that with us, they’ll demand it. If we are not able to do that, someone else will. And, again, we will lose more of the trust, we will lose more of that confidence.”
When organisations say they are looking for talented people, they mean they’re looking for the right people. It’s about ‘fit’. “There’s no shortage of talent. There’s a shortage of alignment between what the organisation thinks they want and what is available out there.”
Water suppliers must speak up more about funding, says Raveen. “The average household in Auckland today spends more on phones and wifi than they do on water and wastewater. Which is more important? So why are we talking about reducing prices? We should be talking about increasing services.”
Raveen says the water industry must think about “true sustainable initiatives”. He cites the example “the world over” that wastewater plants could very easily be waste recovery plants.
“We have said that by 2025 our two largest wastewater treatment plants will be generating all the electricity they need. I have said we will reduce our energy demand overall by eight gigawatts over the next three years.”
Raveen urges the sector to think out to 2026 and beyond and to challenge concepts of what could be recovered – “energy, phosphorus, nitrates, wastewater into drinking water, for irrigation, for farming… Talk to other industries. Build those relationships and collaborate.”
This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.