This article was taken from the whitepaper “Communications & Water management: How utilities can communicate better.” You’ll find the it here.

Trust is a long-game: Why utilities need to shift from transactional communications to relationship building, and how to do it

Why transactional communications no longer work for water utilities

Historically a silent industry

Historically, water utilities have been a silent industry, doing their work under the radar to deliver water and wastewater services. Communication with customers is largely transactional, revolving around billing cycles, maintenance, and repairs. Often, customers only hear from their water utility when something’s wrong, or when the utility needs something from them.

But the status-quo of transactional communications between utilities and the communities they serve doesn’t hold water anymore. In the information age, misinformation and misunderstandings can run rampant, and communities who’ve been ignored and underrepresented in decisions affecting their water in the past can emit wounds that are felt nationally — broken trust that utilities across the board must address. 

Consider the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for example. That experience created a wound not just in Flint but in every black community across the country. If your utility serves populations that identify with the breach of trust Flint residents experienced, it becomes your responsibility to rebuild a trusting relationship with those customers, even if the breach didn’t happen in your backyard.

Operating on a trust deficit

But the reality is, most water utilities operate on a deficit of trust with their customers, no matter who those customers are, simply because of the nature of how people relate to the government and what feelings they may already have towards institutions like utilities. 

The problem with a trust deficit in the utility-customer relationship is it makes it difficult for utilities and their communities to take action on today’s water challenges. As a water utility, you need support from the people you serve to secure funding, approve operational changes and new infrastructure, and influence sustainable behaviors in the face of environmental and water-related challenges.

Switching from transactional communications to relationship building

Build a “trust bank” with your customers

Think of your communications as a “trust bank”

Think of your communications with your customers as putting deposits into a “trust bank.” In relationships, trust is built from many small, meaningful interactions over time. Your trust-building interactions with your community are like an accumulative safety net for the relationship, because relationships will always have their difficult moments. There will always be times when, inevitably, something doesn’t go 100% right. It’s part of being human. But the more you deposit trust-building interactions into your relationship with customers, the less a withdrawal will impact that relationship when things go a little off-course.

Devote more time to non-transactional communications

In order to be a sustainable, resilient water utility today, utilities need to prioritize and devote more time to non-transactional communications with their customers over the long term. You can do this by building awareness about what your organization does, sharing stories of staff and community heroes, and connecting with people in a genuine, empathetic, and honest way, in person and online.

Transparency is a cornerstone of trust-building

Transparency is a cornerstone of trust-building with water utility customers. When you’re open, honest, and clear with your customers about your challenges, operations, services, pricing, and values, you’re transparent about who you are and how you do business. 

Transparency is also reflected in an organization’s willingness to acknowledge and admit mistakes, and how available it is to respond to customer conversations, questions, and concerns through different online and face-to-face channels.  

But it takes vulnerability on the part of the water utility to begin to share more information, to be more transparent with your customers, and people are often afraid of what might happen. Will it snowball? Will it give the community an opportunity to criticize you? It’s possible. But more often you’ll find the more vulnerability and trust you show others, the more you’re giving them permission to do the same with you. 

Keep in mind though, no-criticism is not a realistic goal. A better goal is to build ambassadors in the community that will speak up for you. So don’t wait to start building that relationship with your customers. Utilities can and should start to build trust, bit-by-bit, now.

Be present at community events

If you’re wondering how or where to start building trust with the people you serve, start by meeting people where they are. Some of the biggest impacts happen face-to-face, so having a presence at community events is a great place to start. 

Does your community have a beloved festival? An event that happens every year? Show up for that. Have a presence. Set up a booth, even if it’s just a table and a few pieces of swag where people can engage with some members of your team and ask questions. Consider other ways you can get involved and have a presence at community events, like providing a water truck to distribute free tap water for example. 

Having a presence is a great first step, and it’s something a utility of any size can do and in fact every single utility can do a better job at. You don’t need a million dollar communications budget to start building an ongoing relationship with your community.

Build relationships with existing community networks

Reach out to active organizations and community groups who already have a presence in your service area. Ask them about good places and events to connect with customers. When you do this, it’s like killing two birds with one stone because you’re finding out how to create a presence for your utility and at the same time building beneficial relationships with existing community influencers.

Prioritize in-person communication to augment online efforts

You may be thinking, why would I do in-person outreach when I could reach 100 people on social media through something like a targeted ad. The thing is, if you’re starting from scratch, an ad isn’t going to have the same personable, humanizing impact as a face-to-face connection with a smaller number of people will. Once those relationships are built and the groundwork has been laid, you’ll see more impact from your work to augment your message with social media channels.

Communication is everyone’s responsibilityempower your people to do it well

Empower all your staff to engage

If you want to change your utility’s communication paradigm from transactional to relational, it’s probably time to challenge and reframe the way employees show up at work and what they view as their responsibility in terms of what they do or do not need to communicate to the public.

Are your staff and field operators avoiding interactions with the community when they’re out in the field? That means you have an opportunity to empower them with communications training, so they know what your organization stands for and they feel confident having conversations when they’re out in the community.  You want your staff to feel prepared if they happen to be wearing a jacket or hat with your logo on it at the grocery store or the local pub, and someone approaches them with a comment or a complaint. 

Train all your staff so they feel comfortable speaking with people. Because every single person in your organization has the opportunity and the potential to be an ambassador for the organization, and that face-to-face, neighbor-to-neighbor connection is just another piece of the trust-building puzzle.

Bring operators to community outreach events

Building trust with residents is not just about your communications and outreach teams engaging with the public. If you have a booth or another kind of presence at an event, get your people with boots on the ground to run it. Your operators, utility managers, and experts are veterans with a wealth of knowledge about the job. They’re the ones the community sees in the field. So give them the opportunity to engage with the community in a different, often more positive and fun way than they usually do. Having your field operators running your booths at events not only humanizes staff in the eyes of the community, it’s also a chance for staff to receive appreciative feedback from community members, so they can see that their work is valued.

Branding gives your people a strong sense for how to communicate

We don’t talk about this enough in the water industry, but your brand is so much more than your logo. Your brand is the essence of your organization. It’s your mission and your values. It’s who you are. If you have a strong brand, it gets people excited and rallies people behind your organization’s core message. It gets everyone speaking to the same mission and values. It creates consistency and unity around one single idea, and that’s critical to trust-building. You’ll gain internal and external advocates because everyone is on the same page. While in-depth branding may be more feasible for larger utilities, smaller utilities can engage with branding at whatever level that’s available to them.

Don’t let your brand be just a logo or a dull, empty mission statement. Your brand is the heartbeat of your organization, and it will help you on your journey to engage with customers in a genuine, open way as you shift away from transactional communications in favor of relationship and trust building.

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