A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that 50 % or people have paid their utility (water, sewer, electric) bills late, but only 24.8% have paid the internet late, 39.5% the cable late and 44% the phone bill. Really? We are willing to pay water, sewer and electric late, but not the internet bill? This should be a wake-up call to water and sewer utility leaders nation-wide that we have a problem. Combined water and sewer bills across the United States average something around $50. True they are often higher in California, SE Florida, and some other areas, but they are also lower in many areas. Most of the time even in those high cost areas, the bill is under $100.
I have done a number of rate studies and I find that the cable bill, and the cell phone bills are almost always higher than the water+sewer bill locally, so why are people willing to pay our bill late, but not the others? Is it the perceived benevolence of local utilities, most of which are public entities? Is it a perception that water should be free so it is not important to pay the bill? Or is it the lack of marketing of an essential product by waterutilities? I have heard all these arguments, but I am thinking the latter may be more important. Most people know they need to pay the bill, and I don’t really know anyone who thinks water should be free in the US. People are used to cheap water, and costs are going up. Complaining to local elected officials often keeps rates artificially low, which means maintenance and replacement programs get deferred. That makes the utility more at risk to failure. EPA, GAO and others report regularly that we have been keeping rates low and deferring capital and maintenance for years to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. So what is wrong?
I suggest that as an industry, we have failed in marketing water. Treatment plants, piping and pump stations are out of the way, pipes are buried. No one sees them and people assume these faciliaites will work, but rarely ask how they work or how long they will work. They do not understand the complexity or the regulatory stringency of operating a utility. They do not understand that the number one priority is public health, and protecting the public health costs money. We have not made people understand this because we do not market our product. I have taught elected official classes where the elected officials tell me public dollars should not be spent on marketing, but they never say why when pressed. Rarely is marketing included in a budget. But if water and sewer is a business, isn’t marketing an important strategy to maintain that business?
Meanwhile we have a host of celebrities marketing cellphones, which are not required to survive. We have a host of glitzy cool advertisements for cable service options, but we don’t need cable to survive. The power companies send out glitzy stuffers in their bills that no one reads, but they do end up in the papers regularly. And power really helps us survive, but we could do without it (although it would be unpleasant). Our forefathers did. But no one ever survived without water. Maybe it is just too obvious. But maybe because it is so obvious, people are less conscious of it. We need to market better. As a private sector marketing manager would say – we have lost our market share!! We need to get it back.