Utility Management Series: Planning for the Post-Pandemic Future

This series tackles the prevailing dilemmas happening in utility boardrooms across the United States, now covering the question: How to manage through times of uncertainty?

Uncertainty has been the one constant this year. We all continue to watch as the medical and scientific communities study COVID-19 in real-time and share their guidance based on this evolving research. Healthcare workers have courageously cared for patients without fully understanding their risk. Restaurants and retailers temporarily closed only to reopen to a new reality… or not at all.

Utilities across the globe face this same uncertainty with the added pressure of continuing service despite shifting dynamics. Consider the following guiding principles as you lead your organization to and through the uncertain post-pandemic world. 

Zero in on your customers’ needs

From the start of this pandemic, utilities have put their community first. Suspending shutoffs, rapidly evolving operational models and, most importantly, ensuring that people have the essential resources they need to stay safe and healthy. They knew what mattered to their communities, and focused on it.

Moving forward, it’s critical to continue this focus through an ongoing dialogue with customers and stakeholders. At Xylem, our customers and partners have been gracious with their time through surveys, roundtables, phone calls and much more. These conversations have grounded our approach and ensured we are focusing on the right things for our customers. Similarly, this pandemic has caused a long-term shift in how, and where, utility customers interact with and consume essential resources. Talk to them about their needs. Conduct surveys or virtual roundtables. Ask questions through social media. Know that the clearest voice is the one closest to the customer.

Courageously innovate to address challenges

We have all experienced this pandemic and resulting economic downturn personally. It has brought to light the needs and inequalities our communities face. It has already shifted consumer expectations around access to and affordability of water and energy. I believe that one long-term implication of this shift will be that utilities will need to move away from using shutoff and disconnects as the primary method for addressing nonpayment and delinquent accounts.

The good news is that there are many other tools available to ensure utilities maintain revenue resilience and can address delinquent accounts, such as customer payment programs, flow restrictor devices and reducing non-revenue water. Xylem’s Dr. Christine Boyle covered this topic at length in her post: The Role of Rates Now and Post-Pandemic.

Boldly reinvent your business model

Uncertainty can be paralyzing, particularly when actions and decisions are heavily scrutinized. But the effect of this pandemic will remain with us long after the virus is brought under control. We must act now based on the information we have. There are a few things that utilities can count on when making these decisions.

Customers and employees will expect more remote access and management. One clear theme in my conversations with utilities has been that this pandemic is accelerating the digitization of their organizations. Consider what current activities take place in an office or within a customer’s home. Now consider if they can be done remotely. This applies to everything from leak detection to grid management to bill payment and much more.

Investments must be scalable and futureproof. Despite the increased expectation for digitization from customers and stakeholders, the simultaneous pressure to stabilize rates and continue service through nonpayment are all creating revenue challenges. Prioritize investments that are futureproofed, and adopt business models that spread out investments in lieu of costly overhead. For example, our Managed Services, including Network as a Service and Software as a Service, minimize the IT overhead and capital investments often associated with an Advanced Metering Infrastructure.  

Maximize your current technology investments. A big focus for Xylem is evaluating how customers can get more out of their investments with complementary products and solutions. For utilities, this means you don’t need to assume that the answer is always a new technology. First, look at your current technology and consider whether something like an RNI upgrade or new software could meet your need. Many of our customers have been able to broaden their use case by adding on new technologies that seamlessly integrate with their current system. For example, our

Revenue Locator is a cloud-based solution that targets apparent water loss and maximizes revenue recovery for water utilities. 

Despite the challenges and uncertainty, the critical role of utilities in serving people and communities has never been clearer. For more information on the post-pandemic future, and to hear how other utilities are addressing these challenges, I encourage you to visit our Xylem Reach 20 website for on-demand content and to sign-up for our digital conference in October.