March 2012, Vol. 24, No.3


Connect Now

The value of pre-crisis communications

Rob McElroy

Every year, I take my son whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in northern Georgia. It’s an incredible ride down one of the best whitewater rivers in the country, and it is a thrilling experience. It also could be quite dangerous if we were not properly trained, prepared, and equipped for the ride. The secret to surviving a raging whitewater river is to complete all of your safety preparations while you are in the calm waters upstream, not while you are in the middle of the churning rapids downstream.

Preparing for a utility crisis is very similar. Long before a sewer spill or waterline break appears on the news, or angry customers show up at a utility board meeting angered about your latest rate increase, you already should have taken the necessary steps to be prepared. This is best done by communicating value to your customers now — long before the crisis hits. Waiting until a utility crisis is all around you before starting your conversation with the customer is like waiting until you’re in the grip of a raging whitewater river to put on your life vest — it’s too little, too late, and you might get swept away.


Communicating value on their terms

The first thing to remember is to always communicate value to customers in their terms, not yours. How many times have you heard a utility manager say something like, “Our utility is on the front line of defense against waterborne disease”? While this may be true, can we all agree that not killing our customers is a very low standard to meet and does not necessarily warrant praise? Value demands more than this.

Likewise, the enormous sums we spend maintaining or expanding our systems may be necessary, but this alone does not effectively communicate value to the customer. In fact, you could spend millions of dollars improving water quality and there’s a good chance no one will even notice.

However, your customers will notice a smile, a helpful answer, and an interaction with someone who actually seems to care about them. How costly would this be? Delivering remarkable customer service costs almost nothing and is easier than it might appear.

Here’s a suggestion: Ask employees to imagine that every customer is their dear, beloved grandmother. You’d never talk in a rude monotone to your grandmother. You’d be friendly, helpful, and outgoing — and you would smile! Do the same for your customers! They will notice the difference, and it won’t cost a cent!


Judging a book by its cover 

We all do it. It’s instinctive to observe our surroundings and develop an internal narrative to fill in the gaps. Yet you might be shocked at the story your customers hear from you.

For instance, is the public restroom at your main office clean, sanitary, and well maintained? Soap by the sink? Toilet paper on the roll? Paper towels spilling out of the garbage can? All of these things communicate value (or the lack thereof) to your customers. Sound farfetched?

Say you go to a restaurant and find the restroom a mess. You think, “If this is the part of the restaurant they expect me see, what does the kitchen look like?” Think about the parallels between this illustration and your utility. Frightening, isn’t it?

Likewise, your customers may never tour your treatment plants, but they will see a key part of your infrastructure almost daily. Fire hydrants are on virtually every street. What do your hydrants look like? Are they rusted? Is the paint peeling? Is one leaning over since a car hit it a few months ago? The looks might not affect their function, but if it appears you don’t care about them, then perhaps you don’t care about other parts of your system either.


To see the invisible utility  

Before you can effectively communicate value to customers, they must first notice you. Many utility managers feel that operating under the radar or being invisible is the safest way to go. Nothing could be further from the truth! If you are invisible, then the best-case scenario is that customers will only hear from you two times: when you want money from them (utility bill) or when you want even more money from them (a rate increase).

Getting noticed is a good thing, and it is not expensive. Your consumer confidence report (CCR) is a good example. If it is boring and loaded with big words in small print, your customers will get the feeling you are trying to hide something from them (as they might feel when reading a loan application). Does your CCR make the customer feel the same way?

Daphne (Ala.) Utilities, on the other hand, strives to produce some of the most compelling, attention-grabbing CCRs in the business. The utility recently earned a CCR Excellence Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Daphne’s CCRs are designed to look like movie posters, comic books, and concert fliers — anything to catch the eye of the customer. Producing exciting CCRs doesn’t cost any more than producing boring ones, and the feedback is always positive. Need great ideas and free graphics help? Tap into local high school art classes for artists who would love the opportunity to be published. This also makes a great human interest story for the utility.


Tell a great story when asked 

Everything you do and say tells a story. Craft a truly great story and have the customer be the focus of it every time. For instance, if you are asked why you flush your hydrants, don’t say, “Cuz we gotta” (even if you think this is the truth). Instead, say, “We flush hydrants because it is the most effective way we know of to provide you the highest quality and best tasting water every time you open your faucet.”

Many other low- or no-cost opportunities exist to communicate value. Below are a few examples involving hydrant flushing that Daphne Utilities uses:

  • To reduce erosion during hydrant flushing, the utility fabricated a special hose mount from an old hydrant that is attached to a truck’s trailer hitch. This hitch-mounted fire hydrant attracts a lot of attention. Customers ask, “Are those mini fire trucks?” This is a golden opportunity to communicate value and not wash away our neighbors’ grass.
  • At a local sandwich shop — Firehouse Subs, founded by firemen and decorated in a firehouse theme — the utility installed a nonworking hydrant in a courtyard with a sign nearby telling customers what hydrants do and why the utility has so many. (They are not always for putting out fires;     the hydrants also are used to flush water lines to keep drinking water fresh.)
  • In Daphne’s new dog park, the utility installed old, nonworking hydrants for the dogs to “use.” The park includes a full-sized hydrant for the big-dog area and a smaller flushing hydrant for the little-dog area. Nearby signs inform the dog walkers about the use of hydrants, just as at the sandwich shop.

In each case, the utility went before the Daphne City Council (and a room full of customers) to talk about these activities and the importance of hydrant flushing to water quality. To run an effective utility today, we cannot remain invisible. Customers will not blindly pay more to an invisible utility company, nor will they give a stranger the benefit of the doubt when a crisis occurs.

Being prepared is the key to survival on a whitewater river or at a utility. Do this by winning over the customers long before the crisis occurs. Communicate on their terms, not yours. See your utility as others see it, and hear the story others hear. Get noticed, and have a great story to tell when you are.


Rob McElroy is general manager of Daphne (Ala.) Utilities. 


© 2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.