water affordability

Challenges and innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 3.

Note:

This is the third in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and potential solutions that enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers. You can read posts one and two here.

Where We Can Go Tomorrow: Exploring Novel Interventions for Nonpayment Reduction

By Maryana Pinchuk, Stacey Isaac Berahzer, and Christine Boyle, PhD

In our two previous blog posts in this series, we explored the definitions and metrics used to assess affordability, discussed the role of customer assistance programs (CAPs) in addressing affordability, and considered some major challenges that utilities face when setting up CAPs. In this post, we will briefly discuss rate structures and policy changes that influence affordability, as well as cover additional novel interventions that may reduce utility customer nonpayment in the water sector and related sectors.

Rates and policies shape affordability

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As a recent study on affordability in New Jersey points out, before even considering a CAP, it is important for a utility to examine how its basic rate structure affects low-income customers’ bills. The study points out that “rate structures that rely heavily on fixed charges, as opposed to volumetric charges, will tend to disadvantage low-income customers, as they tend to use less water than higher-income customers.” This lower volume of use also makes declining block rate structure less equitable for low-income customers. The study concludes that “reforming a utility’s basic rate structure can go a long way to reducing burdens on low-income customers, reducing the need for additional, income-based assistance.”

Policy changes also have the potential to make a big difference. At the state level, New Jersey is being encouraged to adopt language for water similar to the 1999 state law known as the Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.  That act declared that it was the policy of the state to ensure “universal access to affordable and reliable electric power and natural gas service.”

If such legislative changes were to occur, water affordability would jump to an even higher priority for utilities, and we could see a lot more activity in this area. Among other things, utilities could be mandated to “report on key metrics related to rates, customer bills, and low-income affordability.” However, as we previously discussed, many utilities currently lack the underlying data to track these metrics.

Customer communication to drive behavioral change

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While there have been discussions on using CAPs, rate structures, and policy to influence customer nonpayment, an area yet to be explored in depth is how changes to customer communication might increase the willingness of some customers to pay. From conversations with multiple utilities about affordability and nonpayment, it is clear that customers have different reasons for not paying their utility bills. While some do lack the financial means to afford their bills, nonpayment can also result from sticker shock, knowledge gaps, and other factors that impact the customer’s decision to pay. These factors may seem daunting to understand and address, but some tools and techniques may offer a path forward for utilities interested in changing customer nonpayment behavior.

Behavioral nudges are lightweight, targeted interventions that aim to implicitly and positively influence consumer behavior. There are many examples of nudges that have proved successful in influencing consumer behavior in the realm of conservation. Some examples include:

  • Providing information to consumers about how their consumption compares to their neighbors’, in order to conserve resources. This intervention was successfully leveraged by Opower to reduce energy consumption. Customers who received the comparative energy reports reduced their household energy consumption both immediately after receiving the notifications and in the longer term.

  • Creating data visualizations that build consumer awareness. In Cape Town, South Africa, a publicly accessible map of neighborhood water consumption was used to demonstrate to individuals that a large number of households are abiding by conservation guidelines, in order to normalize conservation targets. This intervention was deployed during a major drought and may have helped avert the “Day Zero” water crisis.

  • Sending targeted notifications to consumers to encourage positive behaviors. Researchers found that conservation-oriented bill inserts successfully helped consumers reduce their water use in South Africa, and that notifications emphasizing the social recognition and public good of conservation – as opposed to notifications that offered conservation tips or emphasized the financial cost of wasting water – were most successful at encouraging conservation behavior during the Cape Town “Day Zero” drought (you can read more about the research here).

Innovative communication techniques to reduce nonpayment

What lessons can utilities struggling with nonpayment learn from these successful conservation-focused nudges?

As we mentioned in our last post, water utilities have traditionally only communicated with their customers through a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly water bill. Many of the interventions above show that by prioritizing timely, targeted customer communication, utilities have the opportunity to positively change customer behavior. These interventions also relied on a deep understanding of the region-specific underlying factors that influenced consumers’ behavior – for example, understanding that social recognition was a more important factor in conservation for water consumers in Cape Town than lack of knowledge about the cost of water or tips on how to conserve.

We believe that the techniques that have worked for conservation may also work for nonpayment. By using predictive analytics, a utility’s customer base can be segmented into water customers at risk of nonpayment, based on the root cause of each’s customer’s failing to pay bills. Valor has found that sending targeted messages to these specific customer segments can motivate non-paying and late-paying customers to pay on time. In a pilot at a mid-sized utility in Georgia, we were able to reduce the amount of outstanding customer payments by 50% and decrease the total number of service shutoffs by 50%, year-over-year.

Targeted marketing to ease chronic nonpayment

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Of course, nudges alone will not fully solve the affordability problem. Identifying different segments within nonpaying customers also means separating customers who for various reasons won’t pay their bill despite having the financial means, from those who can’t pay at all. For these customers who chronically struggle to afford water, CAPs and other affordability programs are a good solution. Using predictive analysis on customer data, utilities can identify which customers fall into this segment – instead of guessing or using outdated or inaccurate historical data – and tailor their CAP marketing efforts specifically to this group to increase CAP enrollment.

The future of affordability

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When thinking about how utility affordability will look in in the next five to ten years, CAPs, policy, and rate structures play an important role. But it is also important to consider the tools that other industries – e.g., credit card companies, cellular data providers – have instituted to solve customer nonpayment. This includes more flexible payment options, such as installment plans, pay-as-you-go, pre-pay, and more. These alternative payment systems only increase the need for predictive analytics (to understand which customers need what type of assistance) and customer notifications (to communicate effectively about progress to payment). No matter the payment system that a utility offers, we believe the key to reducing the vicious cycle of nonpayment, late fees, and service shutoffs is ensuring that utilities a) know and understand their customers, and b) communicate early and often with them to get ahead of nonpayment.

Challenges and Innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 2

Note:

This is the second in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and potential solutions that enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers. You can read the first post here.

Where We Are Today: Identifying and Reaching Vulnerable Customers

By Stacey Isaac Berahzer; Christine Boyle, PhD; editing by Maryana Pinchuk

In our last blog post, we discussed affordability topics that have been relatively well-covered in the water industry and academic research: the definition and measurement of affordability in the context of water service delivery, and an overview of customer assistance program (CAP) creation and funding. Though not necessarily solved, these issues have been discussed in many publications and conference proceedings. In this post, we will discuss a topic that has received less coverage: how a lack of customer information and contact data makes it difficult for utilities to increase CAP enrollment.

Customer data: the Cap on CAPs

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As detailed in our last post, a well-designed CAP can provide much-needed assistance for customers who chronically struggle to pay their water bills. In the last 10 years, CAPs have evolved to become more creative and sophisticated. Programming ranges from income-based rates programs such as the City of Philadelphia to home efficiency plumbing assistance for low-income customers, such as the Water Efficiency Program in Portland, Oregon. Participants in the Water Efficiency Program can have eligible fees reversed, including reminder fees and a range of eligible shutoff fees.   

While programs demonstrate innovative approaches, a common challenge is reaching eligible customers and getting them to enroll in programs. No utility wants to go through the administrative and financial hurdles of creating a CAP, only to find that a large number of eligible customers are not taking advantage of the assistance. But without a strategy for marketing a CAP to the right audience in the right way, this is a serious risk.

Utilities face a variety of barriers to communicating with customers about CAPs, including language and cultural barriers, trust issues, and more. However, there are two fundamental barriers that we will explore in more detail below: 1) lack of accurate, up-to-date data on who utility customers are and ways to reach them, and 2) inability to communicate with renters and other customers who pay their water bills to a third party and not directly to the utility.

Customer data: Knowing your customers

In order to market CAPs to the right customers, a utility must know which customers are struggling to afford their water bills and be able to contact them.

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Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it may sound. Some utilities lack even basic data on the identity of their customers. A utility facing this dilemma head-on is the City of Detroit Water. In recent years Detroit has invested in communication technologies (interactive voice response systems and smartphone-enabled applications) and bill payment systems (local payment points) to make it easier for customers to access information and pay their bills. Even with these improvements, however, the basic problem of customer information tracking has led service shutoffs in Detroit to increase. As Joel Kurth reported in 2017, “Detroit officials acknowledge they don’t know the identity of two-thirds of their customers because most bills are sent to “occupant,” and they don’t know if homes that are shut off are occupied.”

For utilities that do have more detailed information on their customers than just premise address, it may still be difficult to identify customers who are eligible for a CAP. Utilities do not typically track factors that could make it difficult for some customers to pay their water bills, such as whether customers are low-income or fixed-income seniors. Relying on historical data on past shutoffs/nonpayment may be tempting, but this may not provide much insight into which customers are struggling with affordability now or will struggle with this in the future – for example, if the service area is experiencing a large demographic shift, or if water rates will be higher during upcoming summer or drought periods. Lastly, many utilities do not collect customer contact data beyond physical addresses, but paper notices delivered in the mail may not be sufficient for reaching prospective CAP customers – especially those who change addresses frequently, such as students and short-term renters.

Hard-To-Reach: Broadening the definition of “customers”

To make matters even more difficult for utilities interested in marketing CAPs, many of their most vulnerable customers fall through the cracks because they pay their water bills to a landlord or as part of a home maintenance fee, not to the utility directly. Though it may not seem like they are the utility’s “customers,” these water users are no different from any other customer when it comes to needing safe water and not wanting their service to be terminated.

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These customers make up an estimated 40% of low-income households in the US, making them a good target demographic for a CAP. But, because these “hard-to-reach” customers are usually not tracked in the utility’s billing system, the utility often has no way to identify or contact them. This population of customers demonstrates that outreach mechanisms must be tailored to specific customer types. Renters tend to be more transitory than other types of residential customers, making a land-line or an address unreliable contact channels. Instead, mobile phones may be a better way to reach these customers.

While the majority of water utilities are still wondering how (or even if) to design CAPs that help multifamily tenants who pay for their water service indirectly through rent, utilities such as Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) have made the leap. Seattle’s Utility Discount Program (UDP) provides a bill discount of 50 percent of the SPU bill for customers with an income at or below 70 percent of the state median income. This bill discount is even provided to hard-to-reach customers. SPU is able to do this by working with Seattle City Light to provide combined utility credits on hard-to-reach customers’ electricity bills. However, this is still the exception to the rule. Indeed, a key finding of a Water Research Foundation project to study the “hard-to-reach” customer issue is that “utilities typically do not have channels in place to effectively communicate and engage with the hard to reach.”

A path forward: changing the customer-utility relationship

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Traditionally, the only way that a utility engages with its customers is through the water bill. But many other businesses today – from online marketplaces to banks and cellular data providers – make use of multiple communication channels to engage with their customers before, during, and after a transaction. As a recent J.D. Power survey indicates, this is the level of service that all customers expect from their service providers, including utilities.

We believe that tackling customer engagement challenges, including ones related to affordability, starts with adopting this mindset. The next step is developing customer data management practices that can enable utilities to understand and communicate with all of their customers, including those who struggle with affordability. This opens the door to advanced solutions and novel interventions to address affordability, which will be the topic of the next post in this series.