Teaching Water Customers to Go with the Flow

How can you make customers see the real value of water? Two books provide advice.

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A common lament among utilities is that their customers don’t appreciate their product — safe, clean and reliable tap water.

Consumers do largely take water for granted, and yet convincing them of its value is key to winning their support for improvements to infrastructure, and the higher rates that commonly result. Two books from the American Water Works Association are designed to help utilities solve that riddle.

Both books are written by Melanie K. Goetz, an international keynote speaker, consultant for water and energy utilities, leader of public outreach workshops and management retreats, and an expert on communicating the value of water, watersheds, wastewater and stormwater.

Communicating Water’s Value: Talking Points, Tips & Strategies (2014)

This 235-page volume offers practical advice to help managers, communications staff and other employees at utilities of all sizes shape customers’ understanding about the value of water. The publisher notes that “Consumers can mistakenly undervalue water’s worth by assuming it should be provided at no cost to the public.” The book tells how to encourage customers to appreciate water as a precious commodity that must be paid for like any valuable product or service.

Goetz describes tactics that can be especially useful when advocating for rate increases or for conserving water during droughts. She also explains in detail the consumer psychology and behaviors that drive people’s understanding of value. The book includes success stories from utilities and companies that used effective strategies to shape and change citizens’ perceptions about water’s value.

Communicating Water’s Value Part 2: Stormwater, Wastewater & Watersheds (2016)

In 229 pages, this book demonstrates the power of engaging the public through success stories and illustrations of why communications can fail. It is written for managers, engineers, operators, stakeholders, elected officials and others who want to influence public perceptions of water.

“Today we can predict storms, reuse wastewater and desalinate inland waters,” the publisher states. “And while technology makes it easier to communicate quickly, it can also strip away our humanity. Rather than succumb to the pull of anonymity created by that same technology, this book was written to help blur the lines between the experts and the public they affect.”

Goetz advises experts never to forget that people need to trust them in asserting that the water is safe to swim in, or that wastewater can be treated to a level safe to drink. Meanwhile, customers must recognize that utilities have to make repairs, such as fixing a main break, no matter when it occurs. The public has to be brought into the mix at the time a problem is discovered, instead of simply being handed the preferred solution.

“One thing you can predict about us humans is that hidden beneath the façade of logic is our deep-seated emotional side,” the publisher observes. “For only with a solid understanding of the consumer’s hidden world of perceptions and irrationality can we truly communicate the value of water.”

Both books are available on the AWWA website at www.awwa.org. Visitors can read reviews of the books and read the tables of contents and excerpts.

A look inside

Here is a short excerpt from the book, Communicating Water’s Value: Talking Points, Tips & Strategies. It explores one important way in which consumers perceive value in products.

“Two schools of economic thought drive the discussion about the value of a product: the intrinsic and the subjective. The first holds that the price or value of anything is objective. The second school says price and value are strongly linked to our subjective perception of the worth of goods or services.

“Most of us — economists, retailers, and consumers alike — function in this subjective mode; thus, we give little or no value to an object unless it’s perceived by a consumer to satisfy a human need or want. What does it cost to bring a product to market? Irrelevant. What are the variable costs for larger quantities? Meaningless.

“If the consumer doesn’t covet your Pet Rock or Beanie Baby, you may as well try selling snowballs to the Inuit in Alaska. Objectively speaking, delivering snowballs intact to the shores of the Bering Strait surely involves massive cost (labor, packaging, transportation, and the like). What price could you possibly hope to expect from the Inuit in return for your investment and efforts? Subjectively speaking, zero.

“But offer that same product in liquid form and voila! The lowly H2O is viewed in a new light. Think pipeline. Think bottled water. In either case, objective value is irrelevant to the consumer. Economists would point to the economic value — simply put, what a product is worth to the person who wants to buy it rather than how much the seller will give it up for.”


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