Oct 13, 2014

Education & Engagement

Neda Simeonova

Water professionals face daily challenges in meeting the water demand of current and projected population. Century-old infrastructure in dire need of replacement and diminished funding assistance only exacerbate this problem. And if your water system happens to be located in an area of the country impacted by severe drought, it may feel like your challenges are mammoth-sized.

Managing customer needs presents a whole other conundrum, and the relationship with
customers is frequently impacted by drawbacks such as water bans, water main breaks, basement flooding and even improvement projects. But the customer-water provider relationship doesn’t have to be doomed.

A number of utilities around the country are managing customer expectations with effective and engaging public outreach programs. 

These programs are designed to educate customers about water systems’ involvement in different functions, projects and efforts. Furthermore, they help with basic but important functions, such as billing notices or service terminations due to delinquent water and sewer accounts, and revenue recovery. 

Effective outreach programs help the public understand the importance of water planning and even involve them in the planning process—water conservation programs are a great example. 

Public education and engagement ensure a happy and supportive customer, and eliminate complaints and frustrations.

Recently, I experienced firsthand the importance of communication in relation to water department maintenance projects in my neighborhood. 

This fall, Chicago’s department of water management has been hard at work trying to complete a number of projects before the end of the year throughout the Chicagoland area. 

In my neighborhood alone, an installation of approximately 2,330 ft of new sewer, which will allow for better drainage and reduce the chance of flooding caused by heavy rains, currently is underway. Reconstruction of a century-old water main in dire need of replacement also is in progress.

All of this work means navigating detour signs to avoid massive street closures and construction dust. For local residents, this is more than an inconvenience. 

The department of water management, however, has done an excellent job communicating to the public the ongoing work and progress made in order to minimize inconveniences as residents wait for the dust and machine noise to slowly come to an end.

Instead of high levels of frustration, residents now can anticipate the benefits of improved water service and flooding remediation as the area, being just a mile inland from Lake Michigan, is prone to flooding during major weather events. 

Applying some practices will help the public understand the importance of water planning. Clear communication to all stakeholders, decision-makers, legislative bodies and the general public is a must. Various communication tools—live presentations, e-mails, website posts, phone calls, direct mails, press releases, social media and even webinars—should be used. 

Transparency also is key to public engagement. The public should be invited to attend all meetings, and easy access to meeting minutes and information allows all water users to feel involved in the process. 

These are just some ways to enhance service to customers and improve communication efforts. At the end of the day, a well-informed customer is an engaged and understanding customer; and that’s one fewer challenge to keep water professionals up at night.

About the author

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. Simeonova can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1011.