Customer Service and Tap Water

Presented at the 2012 3MT competition at La Trobe University.

Presented at the 2012 3MT competition at La Trobe University.

Every year two million people die because of dirty water. Access to clean tap water is essential. It enhances our lifestyle and increases our lifespan by several decades.

The picture below shows how water is provided to your house and the central role it plays in our lives. My research is about how businesses that supply tap water provides service to their customers.

Most tap water companies are owned by governments. But due to economic pressures water suppliers around the world are being privatised. Water services in France, England, several African countries and even communist Cuba are in private control.

The water cycle - 3MT presentation

The water cycle. Click to enlarge.

Many economists argue that private water companies provide better customer service than government owned organisations. But is this the case? Limited empirical research has been done to test this assumption. The main question I am seeking to answer is:

Are privately owned companies actually better service providers?

My research consists of two parts. First, I am reviewing what customer service in tap water means and second I am looking at how water companies are managed and provide service to customers.

The worst possible water service exists in some developing countries where people spend hours every day fetching their daily water supply. The best possible service exists in developed countries like Australia; you open a tap and water appears, without it taking any time. But, when the system fails, and no water comes out of the tap, we need to spend extra time to do what we need to do. This concept leads to the idea that the perfect water company is ‘invisible’ to the consumer.

An invisible water company delivers water whenever you want it; you never need to ring them; bills are easy to understand and so on. Using this concept, I can measure the level of service provided to customers.

Generally speaking, private companies provide excellent service because they need to please customers to make a profit. Public organisations provide excellent service because they want to please politicians. But is voter satisfaction the same as customer satisfaction? I am developing a model to measure how customer focused different water companies are, building on existing research in marketing and some new concepts that I am developing.

I will combine this information with the model to measure customer service to answer my research question. My hypothesis is that there is no difference in customer service between private and public water services, but only empirical research will be able to confirm or deny this.

From an academic point of view, my research will add to the work on organisational culture and how it relates to customer service. Practically I hope my research will help water companies, like the one I work for, to become more customer focused and assist governments in considering privatisation of water services to make more informed decisions.

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