How to throw a stress-free dinner party (before PR24)

If they’ve got any nous, most organisations will put customers’ needs at the heart of their decisions about future plans. The water sector, not unreasonably for a monopoly industry, is required by its regulators to do just this – consulting those who consume its services (also known as ‘the living’) when developing its 5 (and 25) year plans. It all sounds quite sensible and straightforward really. Is there much more to say?

Some of you reading this will be intimately acquainted with water company business plans. For those of you who are not, let me tell you that they are eye-wateringly complicated and present considerable challenges for researchers. Whether we’re conducting research with Mrs Jones of Braintree or Mr Smith of Dymchurch, we need to untangle their views about a plan that covers everything from asset resilience to bioresources compliance, regulatory incentive mechanisms and the rights and wrongs of cross-subsidies…

That water companies have the desire to put customers at the centre of their business planning process is without doubt. The question is whether the contribution of Mr Smith and Mrs Jones, who might be understandably disengaged from the intricacies of sewer flows and pipe replacement schemes, is even remotely meaningful. Happily for Blue Marble, this was the question that CCW (formerly Consumer Council for Water) asked us to investigate.

Inevitably, the full answer is almost as involved as a water company business plan, and can be found in our final report.

For anyone who doesn’t have time to read the full report, consumers provided 5 very pragmatic criteria for ensuring that their contribution to research and engagement is meaningful. To paraphrase just one of their criteria and perhaps the most important: make it relevant to me…in fact, if possible, make it all about me.

Trying to understand consumer needs purely through the prism of the business plan – perhaps explaining the intricacies of regional supply and demand before having fully understood their world and their experiences of water and wastewater services – can feel like a one-sided conversation and not especially customer-centric. This is particularly the case for business customers and also vulnerable consumers, who often have complex lives that they want companies to understand first and plan around second. Similarly, young consumers (many of whom are not yet bill payers) told us they don’t feel qualified to comment on business plans but do want companies to understand their generational perspective on issues including environmental urgency – and reflect these in the firm’s long-term vision. In other words, it is more meaningful to understand what matters to customers from the context of their lived experiences. Companies should therefore spend time regularly listening to these customers’ priorities and concerns in a setting that is wholly distinct from their business planning process.

We hope this is music to the ears of the regulatory and customer insight teams across the sector, who can spend the quieter end of the business planning cycle (sometimes called ‘peacetime’) simply listening to consumers – without succumbing to the temptation to mention combined sewer outflows.  Like preparing ahead for a dinner party (finally, the reference to the title), doing this groundwork will take some of the stress out of the more intense run-up – but more importantly ensure the fundamentals of the plan are based on what really matters.