Four Words that Forward-Thinking Utilities Should Rethink

Written by: Leslie Kimble, Marketing Coordinator, Wichita State University Environmental Finance Center

Each quarter, the Oxford English Dictionary adds new and revised words to the official dictionary. The latest update included more than 650 new words, senses, and subentries, including: “fake news,” “xoxo,” and “Jedi mind trick.”

Out of the roughly 172,000 words in the dictionary, there are four words that water utilities might think twice about before using. These words had their place and served their meaning in the past, but as of 2019, forward-thinking water utilities are choosing to replace these words with new words that do a better job explaining the value of public water to customers.

So, grab your public water words dictionary, get out a red pen and circle these four words:

  1. Ratepayers

The word “ratepayers” has been used for years by public utilities to describe the average person that pays for their utility service. Makes sense. It’s a practical word and with a very accurate definition. The problem, is the implication. Municipal water industry professionals interchange the word “ratepayers” with “customers” automatically. But for people outside the industry, the term “ratepayer” emphasizes the idea that the rate the customer pays is the most important part of the relationship. While it’s true, the customer’s payments do sustain the utility financially, there is a service aspect to public water that forward-thinking utilities try to highlight to help the customer understand that there is real value in the water services they are paying for.

Swapping the word “customer” for “ratepayer” adds a sense of reciprocity between the utility and the payers. It also helps communicate the idea that public water is much more than a product you pay for by the gallon, but a valuable service, provided with the safety and health of real people in mind, that is worth paying for.

  1. Consumer Confidence Index/Report

The “Consumer Confidence Report” is not only necessary for public water utilities, it’s required by law, which is where the name was originally coined. However, the way the report is referred to for your customers is not mandated by law. Public water professionals know exactly what the consumer confidence report is, and how important it is. Public water customers, on the other hand, have no idea. To them, it’s a vague report title filled with an even more confusing list of chemicals and contaminants. Ironically, attempting to read the report usually ends up with the customer feeling anything but confident about their water.

Admittedly, the CCR is not exactly the most thrilling of reads, and not many customers have the spare time to sit down and try to decode through the jargon. An easy swap for “Consumer Confidence Report” is “Water Quality Report.” Most customers will instantly understand what the report is about (water) and how important it is (quality).

Once the name of the report is clear, the utility must also pay attention to the language in the report itself. Of course, the utility needs to include all of the accurate information and testing results that are required by law, but don’t stop there. Take a few paragraphs to first educate customers about their water in the report. Where does it comes from? (Adding pictures and graphics is helpful!) How much do customers pay for a gallon of tap water?

Reframe the information in a way that will help the customer easily understand. Take a moment to share accomplishments as a utility, and clearly define the utility’s mission and values. Excellent inspiration can be found here, in WaterOne’s 2019 Water Quality Report. Think of educating and explaining in the first pages of the water quality report as “priming the pump,” so by the time readers get to the data and sampling results, they already feel more “confident” about their public water service.

  1. Flushing

The word “flushing” is tricky because it’s still widely-used and the industry hasn’t picked a word to replace it with, although “cleaning” might be appropriate. Within the industry, water professionals know that flushing is a routine way to improve water quality and increase the reliability of the water distribution system. Customers, on the other hand, associate “flushing” with the toilet, and all the waste that goes with it. Even though water professionals know that drinking water and wastewater are managed at two completely separate and distant facilities for a reason, their customers do not. Customers associate “flush” with “wastewater,” which is not a word most people want to associate to the pipes drinking water comes from. However, flushing is a very accurate and technically appropriate way to describe the process of cleaning drinking water lines. So proceed with caution here. If a utility decides to tell customers that it will be “flushing” lines, they should also explain to the customer exactly what “flushing” drinking water lines means, and the benefits it provides to their water service. A great example of explaining “flushing” to customers can be found here by Western Municipal Water District. A video about the process that could be shared on the utility’s webpage or social media channels would also be a great way to redefine flushing for customers.

  1. Connections

See “ratepayers” above. It makes sense for utilities to think in terms of the number of connections they service. But, public water is not about the number of connections a system has. Large or small system, the responsibility to the public remains the same. The people, the customers, make the utility’s work more than just a network of pipes and water. The water system is a public service….a really important and critical public service that people rely on daily. Continuing to use the word “connection” for “customer” takes the person out of public water work. The people are the most important part of this public service!

In summary, public water communication has emerged over the last five years as a key topic that utilities are seeking to learn more about. How can utilities use strategic communication to educate their customers, or gain buy-in and support? Beginning to rethink the words that are commonly used in the industry is a starting point. Sure, they are technically accurate words, but do they help us paint an ideal picture to our customers about the value of public water? Maybe not.

Which of these four words do you agree with? What public water words do you wish the industry would rethink? Is your utility changing the way they talk about water to customers? Let us know in the comments below!