Below are a few recent client case studies, to give you a flavour of our work.

Case Studies

Using a customer panel to help inform business planning

As water companies develop their plans for the future, it is vitally important that they understand customers’ views on the key trade-offs and difficult decisions they will need to make. Portsmouth Water commissioned Community Research to recruit and convene a Customer Advisory Panel, designed to feed their views into future plans for local supply of water and to establish priorities for the company’s future strategy.

Getting to grips with water supply challenges

Portsmouth Water’s Customer Advisory Panel (CAP) model was created as a mechanism for valuable two-way dialogue with an increasingly informed set of customers. It provided an opportunity to share the key issues facing Portsmouth Water and to encourage customers to offer their unique perspective on the most pressing concerns. Across three CAP sessions, Community Research’s main objective was to explore panellists’ reactions, beliefs and experiences to help identify key priorities for the company.

Giving ordinary consumers a voice

By conducting a series of three half-day workshops, researchers were able to record initial spontaneous views about Portsmouth Water before moving on to in-depth discussions about specific areas of concern and gauging reactions to deeper  issues - such as the need to conserve water and invest in infrastructure, in subsequent sessions.

A carefully recruited CAP of 20 customers was convened. The panellists represented an even gender split, offering a spread of age, socio-economic and ethnic profiles with mixed employment status. The Panel sessions included a blend of discussions, questionnaires, tastings, presentations and group exercises and employed a variety of data capture mechanisms, including audio recordings and note taking.

Crafting a business plan that addresses customer concerns

Over the course of the research, CAP members shared a wide range of observations in relation to areas of interest to Portsmouth Water, including issues around affordability, customer service, metering, water quality and future water resources. A minority of panellists were already taking measures to conserve water, but the general consensus was that a widespread lack of awareness of the issues would hinder efforts to extend these behaviours.

Although broadly appreciative of the reliability and cost of their water supply, there was resistance to the idea that climate and population challenges could threaten future supplies, given the perceived abundance of water in the UK. Panellists were very keen that leaks be addressed and metering options explored before committing to additional infrastructure investment (new reservoirs, for example).

‘By sharing information about our business and taking the time to really explore the opinions of our customers, we ensured that we have prioritised what is important to them. The in-depth feedback that Community Research provided has enabled us to start making our plans with a confidence that we have put our customers right at the heart of them.'

Getting the message across: challenging assumptions to create communications that hit the mark

Creating greater awareness of the challenges around maintaining a secure water supply against a backdrop of climate change and population growth in the UK is an area of increasing focus for The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In June 2017, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) commissioned Community Research to conduct a series of workshops across the country designed to explore public attitudes to the future supply of water, with the aim of developing messaging and communications strategies that would promote the imperative for water conservation in a more meaningful and productive way.

Eliminating misconceptions through information

A 2016 study by Water UK posited the growing risk from severe drought incidents, especially across the South and East of England in the coming decades. In the wake of the report’s findings, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) was keen to develop a fresh approach to the sector’s communications – one that would resonate more deeply with consumers and convey the importance of pursuing more robust water conservation strategies.

Community Research’s main objective was to gather the evidence needed to inform the water industry’s future campaigns on water saving and resilience, and to help CCWater in its role as the consumer expert to model good practice to water companies, as well as to other potential partners and stakeholders.

Understanding consumers’ thought processes

Recording accurate impressions of consumers’ understanding of the issues around water conservation was an essential part of the process. To this end, Community Research employed techniques specifically designed to explore and capture consumer attitudes and views as their understanding of the situation develops.

We undertook a series of face-to-face deliberative workshops in a variety of locations with a total of 93 participants mixed by age, gender, life-stage and socio-economic background. We designed a mixture of discussions, questionnaires and group exercises and employed a variety of capture mechanisms, including audio recordings, note taking and graphic illustrations. Varied stimulus materials, to feed in information about the situation with regards to future water supply, were also developed, including bespoke explanatory animations.

Communicating a message that resonates

Interestingly, despite having awareness of climate and population issues, most participants didn’t connect these issues with their own water supply and were shocked to hear of the scale of the challenges facing the water sector. Resistance to water conservation messages had been reinforced through people’s lived experience – that of access to an apparently endless and plentiful supply of water.

Our research suggested that there was a need to focus on messages that raise awareness of the bigger picture - what the problem is and why it matters - before drilling down to individual water use behaviours and ideas of how to change these. Because reducing water consumption isn’t an established social norm for many, messaging that is designed to help people understand the reasons for water conservation is more likely to resonate and encourage them to take action.

In short, knowing more about ‘why’ they should save water should help consumers to engage with their water usage – in some cases for the first time – and prime them to be more responsive to subsequent messages about ‘how’ to save water. It might also make them more likely to be supportive of water company investments to protect future water supplies.

The final report included recommendations on general and specific messaging to raise awareness and impact consumer behaviour and attitudes, as well as some initial indications of approaches tailored to a range of defined consumer types.

‘This was an insightful project by Community Research. Their research findings suggest that if water customers are told about the ‘big picture’ they are more likely to act to change their behaviour and attitudes towards using water more wisely. This, in turn, could have positive effects on the long-term availability of water resources and the environment.’

Thames Water – Your water future engagement

All water companies in England and Wales are currently engaging with their customers and stakeholders to help inform their business plans in preparation for the Price Review 2019. Ofwat praised the water companies' engagement in the run up to the previous Price Review in 2014 but has tasked all companies with doing even better this time. They are putting particular focus on inclusivity, meaningful engagement about long term priorities and innovative approaches. Ofwat are keen for customers to be informed about the challenges facing water companies - not least increasing energy prices, the changing climate and the rising population.

Thames Water, as the largest water company in the UK, is keen to lead the way in terms of its engagement and consultation. Community Research is acting as an advisor and supplier to help them deliver an ambitious programme of engagement.

High-level engagement was conducted in Autumn 2016. A second, more detailed phase of engagement was completed in May and June 2017, comprising a wide range of activities:

  • Meetings with key professional stakeholders.
  • An online survey.
  • A series of roadshows at community events throughout London and the Thames Valley.
  • A programme of Local Engagement Forums - drop in sessions where stakeholders and residents can hear more about Thames Water's challenges and plans and have their say.
  • The ‘Your water world’ tool which was available online and as a physical console at events - the console has knobs and levers which customers could use to decide what level of service they want for different aspects of their water and wastewater service

Thames needs to know if, and how, customers and communities are affected by their plans. They are using the feedback to make sure their plans include the right mix of customers' priorities. They'll then be ready to unveil more details about their draft business plan in 2018, when there will be a further round of engagement as well as consultation on the company’s 25 year Water Resources Management Plan….we’re working with them to develop that process right now.


Levelling the playing field: exploring ways of delivering good service to people in vulnerable circumstances

Following Ofwat’s Vulnerability Focus Report in February 2016, water companies were urged to consider how their service could be adapted to develop an approach that would work for all customers, including those in vulnerable circumstances. In response to this, Anglian Water commissioned Community Research to undertake qualitative research in to explore issues facing vulnerable customers among its customer base, with a view to informing future policy and better tailoring service to the needs of such customers.

Reviewing the definition of vulnerability

Anglian wanted to redefine its understanding of the range of vulnerabilities faced by a section of its customers, as well as to learn more about customer expectations and explore any barriers they might face in accessing specific services (special tariffs, for instance).

Extended-depth interviews, followed by in depth ethnographic films

As part of this highly sensitive research programme, Community Research conducted a series of extended-depth interviews with individual participants in their own homes. Interviews followed a semi-structured guide in order to allow participants to elaborate on and discuss their views and perceptions freely. They lasted between 60 and 90 minutes.

The research team selected and recruited participants defined by The Vulnerability Focus Report as ‘customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable’, rather than relying on traditional, and possibly unhelpful, stereotypes of vulnerable consumers – ‘the elderly’ or ‘the disabled’, for instance.

Following the interviews, Community Research worked with Postcode Films to produce a series of short films, developed with vulnerable customers themselves, sharing their stories and exploring their everyday challenges.

Providing a tailored service for vulnerable customers

More recent definitions of vulnerability by regulators include the idea that this circumstance can manifest as a temporary state for some – due to unreliable income sources or periods of illness and short-term unemployment. There was evidence to show, however, that a transient state of vulnerability could rapidly become permanent, if contributing issues escalate.

Recommendations included using a variety of different approaches to identify potentially vulnerable customers – possibly in partnership with other agencies - as well as factoring in more flexible tariffs and services in a bid not only to help prevent customers from falling behind with their payments, but to enable intervention well before things become completely unmanageable.

The research suggested that opening up a greater variety of communications methods, responding with empathy to problems and making payment options as effortless as possible would help customers in vulnerable circumstances.

The final report cross-referenced key findings in Ofwat’s Vulnerability Focus Report and included strategies for identifying customers who were potentially vulnerable, as well as ideas for ensuring easy access to timely information on special tariffs.

In addition to the research report, Community Research provided Anglian Water with a series of detailed ‘pen portraits’ of the research participants, bringing their individual stories to life. The six ethnographic films also provided a much more detailed and relate-able output for the company to disseminate findings across the organisation.

‘Community Research developed a rich picture of the various types and effects of vulnerability, which was really brought to life in the films. This is a key piece of work that we will use to inform our new strategies for vulnerability.’ Carolyn Cooksey, Head of PR19 Strategic Stakeholder Engagement at Anglian Water Services

Making difficult investment decisions accessible to customers

Listening to customers, inviting feedback on services and exploring their views on where and how money should be invested is crucial to establishing a sustainable approach to future water supplies. In advance of submitting its latest Water Resources Management Plan (WRMP), South Staffs Water (incorporating Cambridge Water) commissioned Community Research to carry out a study with household, business and future customers to help them to understand customers’ priorities and to invite them to share their views on a variety of investment options. The information has been used to develop the companies’ draft WRMPs and to contribute to their Business Plans.

Using customer feedback to inform policy decisions

South Staffs Water supplies drinking water to 1.6 million people in the South Staffordshire and Cambridge regions (following its acquisition of Cambridge Water in 2011). As part of an ambitious project to understand key customer priorities, as well as those of other stakeholders, South Staffs have planned a series of engagement activities that are scheduled to run to the middle of 2018.

Explaining challenges; identifying areas of priority

A total of 32 South Staffs Water household, small business and future customers were invited to an all-day workshop in Walsall. An identical exercise was run in Cambridge with a similar mix of Cambridge Water’s customers. This was an opportunity for customers to learn more about their water company’s responsibilities and about the growing challenges of meeting the demand for water. Feedback was sought on the areas customers deemed to be of the highest priority for them.

Two weeks later the same customers were invited back to further half-day events. During these second sessions, they worked together to develop their suggestions for the companies’ future investment programmes to manage water resources over the coming years. Activities were designed to be fun, as well as educational and informative. Options for future investment were outlined using ‘Top Trumps’ style information cards. Customers worked in groups to develop their own ’investment programmes’ to meet budgetary and water delivery targets. Whilst the exercise was necessarily much simplified, it was based on the actual decisions that South Staffs Water and Cambridge Water will have to make in their plans.

Communicating well and leading by example

The first session focused on the challenges of maintaining a secure water supply now and in the years to come. The second session looked specifically at ways in which money could be most effectively allocated. Customers felt more should be done to make people aware of some of the key issues affecting water supply now and in the future. It was also clear that customers want their water company to lead by example, ensuring that leaks are fixed before asking householders to reduce their usage.

All feedback was included in a final report and will be used by South Staffs to develop priorities within their WRMP and their Business Plan.

You can watch a short film about this research here:

‘Community Research helped us to engage with a representative selection of our customers as part of our on-going focus to listen and incorporate their feedback into the development of our future plans. The project they designed was fun and interactive for customers and their feedback extremely valuable for us. It’s important that customers understand not only the scale of the task that lies ahead of us to ensure we can always meet customer demand for clean, high quality water, but are reassured that their views are valued and will, in fact, influence what we do.’  Nick Hollaway, Customer Research & Insight Manager, South Staffordshire Water