Accent MR Accent

How Does Customer Engagement Co-Exist with Political Ambition?

No, I’m not talking about Brexit – but you could be forgiven for thinking that I am, as there are many that believe – whatever your views – that it can be difficult to align political ambition with public views, particularly if these are polarised.

Well, the question I’m asking is whether we can see the same enactment in regulatory decision-making – and here I’m particularly referencing the current water sector business planning process.

Over the past few years all the water companies that are regulated by OFWAT have engaged in an extensive programme of customer insight – with the end game being that they should be able to demonstrate that their plan is fully underpinned by customer views and preferences.

Each of the companies has invested heavily in terms of internal resource and consultancy/agency fees to facilitate this argument. There have been qualitative and quantitative programmes and talk about gamification, willingness to pay, co-creation, golden threads, caps and collars, business as usual, triangulation and acceptability testing – certainly enough jargon to keep us all awake at night.

The process hasn’t yet reached the final climax but we know enough to determine where each company currently fits into a league table drawn up by OFWAT. And it’s probably fair to say that the euphoria which surrounded the delivery of what were typically felt by the companies to be customer-driven business plans has been replaced (for many) with deflation as their edifice has been challenged.

And the interesting thing is that it’s difficult to determine a pattern between how the customer engagement process was rated by OFWAT and the rating of the ultimate business plan – eg an A for customer engagement didn’t necessarily translate into a similar rating accorded to a potentially customer-driven business plan

This leads to a number of potential questions:

  • Did even the best customer programmes ‘fall short’ in the regulator’s eyes?
  • How easy is it to assess multi-faceted customer engagement programmes?
  • And what weightings should apply to all the different components?
  • Is the regulator merely trying to say ‘please try harder’?
  • Or, are there important political and economic arguments that can potentially trump customer views?

We’d be interested to hear your opinions.

Rob Sheldon