Confronting consumer fears over water quality

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. So it is with drinking water quality in France, where consumer knowledge has improved but not enough to keep irrational fears in check. As a result, customer service and communication strategies employed by Lyonnaise des Eaux focus on giving consumers the facts.

“We are in the difficult period when customers are coming from a state of ignorance about drinking water to a state of real understanding,” explains Henri Barthalan, customer relations manager for Lyonnaise des Eaux.

Lyonnaise des Eaux’s strategy to deal with water quality fears is long term and, thus far, has focused on telling people where their water comes from. “We’ve developed new communications programmes and as many as possible,” says Barthalan. A key component of the communications strategy involves providing all consumers – every resident in a tower block, for instance, not just the building’s manager who is the official Lyonnaise customer – with a booklet outlining the locality’s water sources.

So, residents of Yvelines, are told that, unusually, their water comes from groundwater sources and are given general information regarding the reservoirs’ locations. A map shows where WTPs and WwTPs are in the region and the chemical characteristics of the water. This information from Lyonnaise supplements the annual reports on local water quality published by the state-run Water Agencies at the request of the Ministry of Environment. The annual reports have been provided to residents of towns greater than 30,000 since 1998, and towns greater than 10,000 from 1999.

By the end of 2000, all French citizens will receive the annual reports.

Admirable in its intent and stylish in its execution, Lyonnaise’s scheme to calm consumers by providing local data has not succeeded in allaying all consumers’ fears. “We have not yet managed to make customers understand that there are differen-ces based on local conditions,” admits Barthalan.

Therefore, stories about pollution of drinking water in Brittany result in consumer confidence falling in regions as far away as the Alps and Bordeaux. “At the moment that they receive our information consumers are reassured, but three weeks later they are fearful once more,” says Barthalan.

One way to deal with consumer concerns about water quality is, of course, to ignore them, but Lyonnaise is committed to sustaining its communication effort. “This process of education is essential,” says Barthalan, “but we cannot accelerate it too much.”

In many ways, Lyonnaise finds itself stuck in an environmental no man’s land. While its customers are happy with their daily Lyonnaise service and even reconciled to the rises in water prices that have taken place in France this decade, it is water quality that remains the worry. “We are not yet over the general, irrational fears regarding water,” acknowledges Barthalan.

And the future? Like many water companies, Lyonnaise is putting ever-increasing efforts into educating children about drinking water sources and treatment. Ironically, children are seen as bringing calm logic to the issues surrounding water.

The company’s scheme to educate consumers about wastewater could also open up another pandora’s box. “Our aim for the next two to three years is to make it clear that the collection and treatment of wastewater is linked to the protection of water resources,” explains Barthalan. “People in France don’t know much about wastewater and they don’t want to hear that they are producing it.”

Bordeaux’s best practice

Lyonnaise des Eaux’s largest domestic contract serves approximately one million people in the Bordeaux-Aquitaine region. Lyonnaise has overhauled its customer service procedures in the region and a call centre, with 20 staff trained to deal with every type of customer enquiry, has proven a success. A national network of 12 call centres is planned. Another team specialising in customer mail ensures that letters are recorded on a database the day they are received. This way, all staff in contact with customers are alerted to the fact that a letter has arrived and are provided with details of its content. Concerns about quality are not dismissed. Customers are offered both information and assurance.

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