by Sian Leydon, General Manager, Customer, Strategy and Regulation, Sydney Water

Over the last 128 years, Sydney Water has always cared about our customers. Today’s customers generally are better informed, better connected and more demanding than ever before. In the age of the customer, essential service providers are no longer shielded from increasing customer expectations.

The reality is that the world is changing – customer expectations are growing and customers compare us to banks and other service providers.

While Sydney Water’s customers are not as free to ‘vote with their feet’ if we don’t do something differently, the world will continue to change around us and our ability to meet their expectations and our objectives will be hampered.

Sydney Water’s vision is to be the ‘lifestream of Sydney for generations to come’ and our three principle objectives are; to be a successful business, to protect the environment, and to protect public health by supplying safe drinking water to customers and the public.

To ensure we achieve our objectives we can look to ‘customer trust’ as a proxy measure to determine our success.

Customer trust as a measure determines our ability to meet the needs, wants and values of our customers through keeping our customer promises, which our customers helped us to define.

These promises are the customers’ definition of what their expectations are of us, which is a true representation of what great performance looks like for Sydney Water.

Our customer promises are:

  1. We promise to be a reliable part of our customers’ every day lives by delivering great water and wastewater services.
  2. We promise to make it easy for our customers every time we interact, no matter how when and why we come in contact.
  3. We promise to make every one of our customers proud by giving them a voice in what we do and playing our role in creating liveable
  4. For us, it always comes back to customer trust and that’s why we are driving a transformation at Sydney Water on a scale never seen

Like other water utilities around the world, Sydney Water has traditionally been driven by an engineering and asset focus.

We are turning the way we do business on its head, taking an outside-in view of our business and actively seeking to understand and respond to the varying needs and expectations of different customers, so that we encourage our staff to build a culture that supports placing our customers first and foremost in all we do.

We now see ourselves as a service business, not a utility or asset management business.

We want our customers to find us easy to deal with, experience us as transparent and continue to trust us now and into the future.

How are we doing it?

The first major piece of work was the creation of a new Customer Experience Strategy which was developed with significant customer input.

For the first time in 128 years we have a customer strategy that defines customer segments and customer promises that sit across the entire organisation and drives all our decision-making.

The strategy gives us a common language to use and helps us to get a better understanding of who our customers are, what they value and how they behave.

Previously we had an ‘inside-out’ approach and grouped customers by the impact they had on our assets and finances.

Our new ‘outside-in’ approach means:

  • We know what different groups of customers need, want and value from Sydney Water
  • We can distinguish between intentional (based on attitudes and beliefs) and situational (based on specific situation) customer behaviours and can tailor interactions and channels appropriately.
  • We can identify forgotten and hidden customer groups to improve the service we provide them.

A big part of the customer strategy is setting a clear direction and service expectation for each and every member of staff so that our customers feel informed, valued, supported and treated like a person, not a number.

Customers trust us when we deliver on our promises. A new team has been established to provide direction and drive improvements in customer experience across the entire organisation.

Creating a customer hub

To ensure that we can keep our promise to make it easy for our customers, every time we interact with them, we have combined our customer service and asset maintenance areas into a single team, and have created a pilot program with a Customer Hub.

The Customer Hub enables us to proactively notify customers and to prioritise jobs based on customer impact. Customer advocates case manage complaints, property damage and special needs customers.

Maximising technology is a key part of this trial. We are providing customers with SMS alerts, keeping them more informed than ever about outages and impacts.

We have installed an online geospatial tool, Spatial Hub, which provides staff with real-time situation awareness and the ability to diagnose and resolve customer issues.

Our aim is that over 50 per cent of future contact with customers will be proactive instead of customers ringing us to let us know if something’s gone wrong.

New technologies to support our staff and the program

Technology is fundamental to Sydney Water’s transformation to fulfil our customer promises to make it easy for our customers to interact with us and to give our customers a voice in what we do.

We are implementing a once in a generation digital transformation, replacing our 30 year old billing system with an SAP platform for customer relationship management and billing. This will help us deliver an enhanced customer service. We are also utilising new technologies to improve our billing service and communication with customers via apps, SMS, online and email.

We have launched the ‘Tap In’ mobile app which is a one-stop online shop for customers to access building and developing services.

Sydney Water Tap In enables customers to buy diagrams, get building plans approved, and submit connection applications online, eliminating the need for customers to visit an agent in person.

We have also launched the ‘Water Map’ app that allows customers to see real-time updates of water supply and service updates. This keeps customers informed about leaks and breaks, and helps minimise the inconvenience.

Our expanded use of social media allows our customers to have their say on a whole range of issues. It also allows our Contact Centre staff to engage with our customers on social media in real time, which is proving extremely beneficial for all involved, particularly in overcoming and repairing service faults. Over the past 12 months we have used social media successfully to change behaviour through our ‘keep wipes out of pipes’ education campaign.

Our customer projects

Customer onboarding experience

There are about 150,000 property ownership changes each year in Sydney Water’s area of operations. The potential for a bill to be issued to an incorrect property owner is huge and results in customer dissatisfaction.
The customer onboarding service involves improving the timely capture of ownership changes so that Sydney Water can proactively communicate with new owners, avoid issuing incorrect bills and build positive relationships with customers when they move to a new dwelling.

Customer experience lab

The Customer Experience Lab has been established to turn great ideas into positive customer outcomes quickly and cost effectively. It enables any staff member to connect with and contribute directly to the ‘keeping’ of our customer promises by proposing and progressing their ideas for improving customer experience.

Through this process, improvements have been made to Sydney Water’s direct debit and payment arrangement services. A new self- serve tool for real estate agents to look up property charges has been created, and we have developed better ways to assist customers who experience a sewer blockage on their property. These initiatives will not only improve customer satisfaction but will reduce calls to our contact centre.

Finally, to bring all of this together for our customers, we are embarking on customer engagement in early 2018 to inform our upcoming regulatory submissions to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) to ensure Sydney Water achieves the best possible outcomes for our customers.

Planning for the future

Our ultimate ambition is to avoid problems with our services, but when they do happen, we want to know about them well before our customers ever do.

Necessary, timely and planned preventative maintenance is always safer, more efficient and a better experience for our customers than reactively fixing something that’s gone wrong. In the future, we see our customer contact as mostly positive and outbound.

There is still a long way to go and we are only ever as good as our most unhappy customer. Sydney Water’s success is going to be about our customers. Understanding their needs, getting their insights and making great decisions based on that.

At the forefront of our vision is a dedicated focus to provide an exceptional level of service which meets the needs, wants and values of our customers. The possibilities are exciting and full of challenge and opportunity.

One thing is for certain, the future will be very different from the past. At Sydney Water, we are eagerly leaning into this future where we will be an essential part of Greater Sydney’s communities for generations to come.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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