Safe Water versus Good Water

Safe water in South Africa (Source: WRC).

Safe water in South Africa (Source: WRC).

Providing safe water is the most important task of engineers in a water utility. Operators of drinking water systems comply with local regulations to meet this objective. Meeting these requirements can, however, lead to a reduction in the perception of quality by the consumer. For example, adding chlorine is essential to ensure public health in that it destroys micro-organisms, but in some communities chlorine is perceived as an unwanted chemical.1 Providing safe water is a necessary condition. but not a sufficient condition to achieve customer satisfaction.

Service quality is the overall assessment of quality by the customer. In reticulated water, it can be defined from two perspectives: that of the customer and that of the service provider. The customer extrinsically assesses the experienced quality attributes concerning what is capable of being perceived. From the service provider’s perspective, quality resides intrinsically within the service itself. The service provider is interested in providing safe water by meeting the relevant regulations—the customer is interested in good water through a positive consumption experience.2

Service quality in tap water: the difference between safe water and good water.

Service quality in tap water: the difference between safe water and good water.

The intrinsic perspective of the water engineer is predictable and rational. Water safety can be expressed in e-Coli counts, electrical conductivity and other scientific parameters. However, the extrinsic perspective of the consumer’s individual perception is non-rational. This non-rationality does not imply that consumers are irrational. A non-rational perspective is one that includes emotional assessments that cannot be described in numbers. How users of water systems view their service (good water) only partially overlaps with how engineers and scientists see the service (safe water). Customers are interested in good water and take safe water for granted. This aspect of water quality is for marketers to assess.

In marketing jargon, good water is determined by experience qualities while safe water is determined by the credence qualities of water. Experience qualities are attributes such as taste, that can only be discerned after purchase or during consumption, and credence qualities are attributes which consumers find impossible to evaluate because they do not have the knowledge or skill to do so and because many aspects of safe water are not immediately perceivable.3 This idea implies that as customers cannot experience the safety aspects of water directly, trust is one of the most important parameters in the provision of water services.

To provide a complete picture of service quality in water, it is important not to focus only on the intrinsic scientific aspects of service provision. A complete measurement system will include the non-rational dimensions of human perception. Scientists and engineers responsible for water safety need to work together with marketers to provide a complete understanding of water quality.

The concept of intrinsic and extrinsic service quality in reticulated water has been described in detail in my recent paper on the topic, which was presented at the 2013 World Marketing Congress in Melbourne.


  1. Kot, M., Castleden, H., & Gagnon, G. A. (2011). Unintended consequences of regulating drinking water in rural Canadian communities: Examples from Atlantic Canada. Health & Place, 17(5), 1030–1037. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2011.06.012

  2. The concept of the distinction between safe and good water is from Dr Dharma Dharmabalan. 

  3. Rushton, A. M., & Carson, D. J. (1985). The marketing of services: Managing the intangibles. European Journal of Marketing, 19(3), 19–40. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000004748

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