But our commitment to quality does not end with providing a great product. It also extends to providing great service, whether it is fixing a leak, clearing a blockage, sorting out a bill query or partnering with the community for effective outcomes.
The past year has seen us improving our responsiveness to customers. We launched a more refined customer feedback system resulting in doubling the number of survey responses we normally receive from customers. After every interaction with us, whether it is talking to a customer champion on the telephone, getting a response to an email, transacting online or interacting with our maintenance crew, we ask customers to rate their experience. More importantly, we act on their feedback.
We now proactively reach out to our not-so-happy customers and address the root causes of their dissatisfaction. This is why we were able to improve our Net Promoter Score (NPS) by more than 10 points over the last year. At 43, our NPS is still not where we believe it could be and we will continue working to be better tomorrow than we are today.
Our maintenance crews, the face of Watercare in the community, also attract exceptionally positive feedback from our customers. A common theme is that our crews are very knowledgeable, professional, polite and caring. The establishment of our training centre, simulating a live network and residential façade that enables training in technical and people skills, has greatly influenced this feedback. The training centre was recognised for its originality at the Water NZ 2018 conference with an award for innovation in safety.
We continued to streamline the way we transact with our customers. We ended the year with just more than half of our customers receiving their monthly bill electronically, which is not only more cost-effective but also more sustainable. Recognising that our customers have a range of ways they prefer to pay their bills, we are proud to be the first company in New Zealand to offer as many payment options as we do. In 2018/19, we added Apple Pay, Alipay, WeChat and UnionPay to our list.
When customers have difficulty paying, we assist them with flexible payment terms. In some instances, we work with the Water Utilities Consumer Assistance Trust (established by Watercare in 2012) to work out a payment plan that these customers can fulfil or by writing off portions of debt and also providing budgeting assistance in tandem with Work and Income, Citizens Advice Bureau and other organisations.
In 2018/19, we forgave $120,000 worth of debt incurred by people facing financial hardship.
One of our main commitments is managing demand and promoting waterwise behaviours in our customers. We continued our partnership with EcoMatters to deliver our free Be Waterwise programme to Aucklanders. As part of this we conducted 136 home audits and provided 266 water-saving products. The objective of our Water Efficiency Strategy is to reduce Aucklanders’ average rate of consumption by 15%, by 2025 compared to consumption levels in 2004.
Managing demand to meet the 15% target is an ongoing challenge due to the rapid growth in Auckland’s population and industry as well as the business’ competing priorities and our legislative mandate to be a minimum-cost, self- funded, lifeline utility.
As part of our ongoing commitment to educate our customers and the wider community about the value of water, we continued our free water education programme to schools. Our education coordinator visited 31 schools around Auckland and delivered 290 lessons on water and the environment.
We also partnered with Plunket to promote awareness about the proper disposal of wet wipes by families. Wet wipes are often marketed as flushable but do not break down when flushed down the toilet and as a result, they frequently cause blockages in our wastewater network. Our campaign reached families across the Plunket network and was covered in newspapers and on TV.
In addition, we also established our social media profile on Facebook and LinkedIn. By sharing our activities and projects with the wider public, we are providing our communities a glimpse of what we do behind the scenes to ensure they enjoy water and wastewater services 24/7. Ultimately this helps to build trust in Watercare and our services.
We acknowledge that our operations and construction activities have an impact on the community. We make every effort to engage with the communities affected before, during and after our construction programmes. This year, we organised open days, site blessings and environmental offsetting initiatives on several projects including the
Central Interceptor wastewater tunnel, Northern Interceptor, North Harbour No.2 Watermain, Pukekohe East Reservoirs, Redhills expansion, Clevedon water and wastewater servicing, and Hūnua 4 Watermain. We also collaborated with other infrastructure providers on projects (NZTA, AT, Vector) so we could deliver programmes more effectively and minimise the disruption to community.
We also continued our focus on enhancing our relationship with iwi groups. Kanohi ki te kanohi, rangatira ki te rangatira (face to face, leader to leader) hui (meetings) and korero (discussions) have been hugely important in building early engagement, transparency and collaboration with mana whenua.
Two years of open-minded and frank conversations with the community has helped to shape the plans for a new water treatment plant and two storage reservoirs in Waima (Titirangi).
The proposed plant will replace the existing Huia Water Treatment Plant. The land for the new plant, which we own, is designated for water supply purposes. It is part of the Waitākere Ranges and is considered a ‘significant ecological area’. We commissioned an extensive ecological survey that identified which areas were of most significance in terms of structure, composition and function, as well as mapping the vegetation types, waterways and habitats.
We set up a community liaison group in 2017 to work with as we developed the proposal for the plant. The group is made
up of representatives from a wide range of organisations: Waima and Woodlands Park Residents and Ratepayers, Waima Restoration Protection Society, Titirangi Protection Group, Waitākere Ranges Protection Society, Titirangi Residents and Ratepayers Association, Auckland Botanical Society, Tree Council, and Forest and Bird Waitākere Branch. They have had access to independent ecological and statutory planning advisors, funded by us.
The project team met regularly with the group to discuss ways to optimise the layout and minimise adverse effects.
The group’s unwavering focus on protecting kauri trees and their constructive feedback on our proposal led us to review the location for the reservoirs. We concluded that we could build the second reservoir on the existing plant site in around 10 years’ time. This decision has saved a stand of large kauri.
The Community Liaison Group has also helped to shape our environmental compensation package as well as our social mitigation initiatives that will help to offset any adverse effects. These include funding for pest and weed control in Waima; improving traffic and pedestrian safety by upgrading the intersection of Woodlands Park Road and Scenic Drive; and carrying out remedial work on the historical Nihotupu Filter Station in order to give it new life as an office, an exhibition space or both.
We have lodged the resource consent application with Auckland Council to remove vegetation and carry out earthworks on the sites. We have also asked for the application to be publicly notified to allow for further community involvement.