Not-for-profit water company promises to listen to its 3 million customers

A bold experiment undertaken by Welsh Water has just come to an end and we think the utility sector could learn from it.

Welsh Water took the very unique step last month of consulting with our customers about how we should spend the money we make next year – something we believe to be pioneering for a private utility company.

Now the Have Your Say consultation has drawn to a close, having received more than 12,000 customer views on how we should prioritise investment, its success could serve as an example of how the industry can work with customers in future.

Over the coming months, we will consider our customers’ views and decide exactly how we will use the money we make.

The project, which is unparalleled in our industry, echoed a similarly unique decision for our industry we made 15 years ago.

In 2001, more than a decade on from privatisation of the water and sewerage industry in the UK, we led the acquisition of Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water by Glas Cymru on a not-for-profit basis – which established a private company with a public ethos, for the first time.

Our move remains unique in England and Wales for a water company.

We’re the only private water company to be owned on behalf of our customers – so no dividends are paid out to a small number of shareholders. Rather, the money is used for the benefit of all our customers.

But in an age of high customer expectations, uncertain economic times and low levels of trust in companies entrusted to deliver our vital services, our model allows us to do things differently, even though many challenges remain.

Over the summer, we’ve been doing something that private utility companies are not synonymous with doing – giving our customers a stronger voice in how any “profit” is used in the future.

While we are not-for-profit, we do make money – but we invest it on our services keeping keeping bills lower for our customers, rather than giving it to shareholders.

Each year our Board has to decide how we spend that extra money.

While we always make efforts to find out where our customers want us to spend that money, this year, we wanted to do something different.

We’re proud of doing things differently, and we’re constantly striving to respond to our customers’ needs and priorities. But this year, we’ve given our customers a stronger role than we’ve ever done in how we use our “profits” in our Have Your Say consultation.

We asked the three million people, who depend on us every day, to tell us their views on where we should prioritise spending – from investing in our network, boosting community spending, developing our technology and innovation or giving more help to low-income customers – and even whether they wanted a one-off discount on their bills.

We’ve had more than 12,000 responses – which is an unprecedented level for the water sector.

In an age when confidence in the motivations of private business is low, we believe that it is vital to ensure customers are at the heart of every decision, not the pressure of increasing profits for a minority.

There is still room for improvement across much of what we do, but what I can say is that our sole motivation as a business is our customers - our company vision is, after all, to “earn the trust of our customers every day”.

The Have Your Say campaign only took a couple of minutes out of each customer’s day – a quick trip to our website – but it represented a great opportunity to influence how we can both improve our company, and our performance, even further. All for the benefit of our customers and future generations.

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