Aqua holds focus groups to improve customer relations

Since purchasing Lake Monticello’s water and sewer system in 2003, Aqua Virginia has raised its rates five times, in part to compensate for money spent improving the system and others it owns in Virginia. As a result, the average Lake Monticello water and sewer bill has tripled – from about $38 per month before the first rate increase in 2005 to about $120 per month. Because of this, relations between the company and its customers are often strained.

Aqua Virginia serves several communities in Fluvanna besides Lake Monticello. It also provides water and sewer service to Sycamore Square – which is considered part of the Lake Monticello system – and water service to Columbia, Palmyra, and Stagecoach Hills. All told, the company provides service to 4,648 locations in Fluvanna. Lake Monticello and Sycamore Square account for 4,550. “Our biggest concentration of customers in Virginia is Lake Monticello,” said Toner. Aqua has about 32,000 connections in the state, which it estimates serve between 80,000 and 90,000 customers.

During Shannon Becker’s four-year tenure as president of Aqua Virginia, he “wanted to develop a stronger relationship with communities that we serve, particularly in places where we have a higher concentration of customers,” said Toner.
So Becker found ways to participate in and contribute to charitable events throughout the county, such as sponsoring the Lake Monticello Swim Team, youth golf tournaments at Lake Monticello, a Fluvanna County High School football game, the BBQ, Bands and Brews festival, and the wine festival. “We made a huge effort on behalf of the Lake Monticello Fire Department,” said Becker. “In order to expand their area they needed another hydrant installed, so we worked with them. We donated the hydrant and waived the connection fees, which are usually quite costly.”

But Aqua wanted to do more to reach its customers, Becker said. “I knew we needed to improve communications and create awareness. We’re continually looking to improve our communications, but we always based our ideas on what we thought should be done,” he said. “We wanted to ground our future plans in some research.”
So Aqua hired M/A/R/C Research to conduct a series of focus groups with Lake Monticello customers. The focus groups were “independent and objective,” said Becker. “No Aqua representatives were there… All comments were anonymous.”
Researcher Adrianne Dulio conducted the interviews, said Toner. The Fluvanna Review was not permitted to speak with Dulio directly, nor could it contact the focus group participants as their identities were not released.

Toner said Aqua provided the research group with customer contact information so that the group could “screen and identify” participants for the focus groups. She said Dulio sought to gather responses about how often, how, and what customers wanted to hear from their water and sewer company.
After the focus groups, Toner said Dulio put together her findings in categories that included what respondents were satisfied with, what they thought could be improved, and where they thought Aqua should focus its efforts. Aqua would not share its findings with the Fluvanna Review. “We are still going through results,” said Toner.

Toner said Dulio discovered that the respondents want “to better understand rate increases – when and why they occur and how they’re calculated,” she said. She also said “respondents who are aware of Aqua’s history in the community agree that water and sewer improvements were necessary and Aqua’s investment is reasonable.”
Toner said Dulio found that Lake Monticello residents want Aqua to meet with LMOA on a more regular basis. She also said they asked for more advance notice for maintenance and water line flushing. Residents want “more frequent but not too frequent communication, so that’s something we’ll need to drill down on,” she said. “Many respondents pointed positively to prompt and courteous service by field personnel.”

Now that Aqua has its data, it plans to roll out a communications plan in the coming months. “We need to vet the research more thoroughly – go through and make sure what we interpret out of this research is targeted to what people want,” said Becker. “We’ll try to determine what and where we should be focusing our efforts – philanthropically, community involvement, homeowners’ association meetings… We need to make sure we’re focused and targeted to enhance communications and benefit the customer-Aqua relationship.”
Toner said that the company plans to re-establish a community advisory group for ongoing feedback.
Becker is now president of Aqua North Carolina. The new Aqua Virginia president has not yet been named. Implementing the new plan will fall to Becker’s successor, Toner said.

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