It is an undisputed truism that service providers need to be customer-centric to be successful. This kernel of wisdom is more and more finding its way into the discourse on water utility management. While this statement is indisputable in a competitive environment, its application to public services such as water utilities is not beyond doubt.
Some contemporary marketing scholars are reconsidering the primacy of customer centricity and introduced the concept of Balanced Centricity. Total customer centricity is a limited foundation for service provision because full implementation risks the sustainability of the organisation.
Services are not created in a dyadic relationship between the customer and the service provider but through a network of activities involving a range of diverse stakeholders. Each stakeholder within the network is a beneficiary of the activities of another stakeholder. Value is co-created between the service provider and the beneficiary. Customers are not the end-point, but also maintain their value chain. Water has no intrinsic value in itself, and its value proposition is only realised when consumed. The value chain for water utilities thus extends far beyond the customer tap. Most customer taps are used by multiple people who use the water to achieve the 3Cs: Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience.
As public service providers, many aspects of service provision are dominated by professional judgement, such as public health considerations, which cannot be considered the domain of consumer experience. Tap water is an undifferentiated service where natural monopoly provisions prevent utilities providing individualised services. Customer centricity in public utilities is thus limited to those aspects that consumers are capable of influencing.
Balanced centricity is a situation where all beneficiaries in the value creation network have the right to satisfaction of what customers need and want. Regulators are a principal beneficiary within the value creation network for utilities. Water utilities service them through information provision. The environment is also a significant beneficiary of water services, which in Australia is managed through environmental water allocations.
This brief outline shows that being customer-centric is not the sole focus of public service organisations. Public service has inherent limitations on the extent to which consumer judgement can be incorporated in service design. Also, the value creation network perspective shows that the consumer is only one of the many beneficiaries of the value creation process.