Equipped with Populus research, United Utilities have made changes that made a real difference to water consumers’ lives.
- 40,000 water customers have signed up to schemes
- Bad debt has reduced by £8.4 million
- United Utilities updated communications to be more welcoming and consumer friendly
- Assistance was placed front and centre, not hidden away
- Town Action Plans focused activity on specific areas
- The findings were presented at the MRS Utilities Conference as an industry-leading example of human-focused market research.
United Utilities serves 7 million customers across the North West. The region has one of the largest populations of economically deprived household in the country.
- Half of consumers in the North West are financially stretched or in conditions of urban adversity
- There are high levels of disengagement and debt
- Of 7 million consumers, only 3.4 million are in employment
- 540,000 are in receipt of benefits (that’s 30% of the UK total)
- More people apply for asylum here, than in any other region
United Utilities needed to understand how to better engage the disengaged using empathetic, human-centred qualitative and quantitative research.
United Utilities commissioned Populus to carry out research to find out more about the people who they serve. They needed to understand:
- The wider context of debt, what people’s lives are really like and how this affects them
- Where water fits in to the wider picture
- How people budget for and prioritise their utilities bills
- How United Utilities could engage more effectively to improve the debt people and change people’s lives
What we did
It was a complex piece of research. Populus took a piloted, staged and multi-audience approach. Our qualitative experts conducted empathetic, understanding research with real consumers across the area. By walking with them in their shoes, listening to their stories and treating respondents with dignity and respect, we got closer to the real lives behind the statistics.
It rapidly became clear that respondents didn’t have the knowledge or awareness of the support available to them. Shame and embarrassment stopped them from seeking help; the schemes were confusing. This often resulted in people not pursuing a solution and spiraling into debt. Our quantitative specialists conducted research of over 250 respondents in the area.
The research gave United Utilities the tools to improve services and make positive change to real consumers’ lives.
The research showed that a multi-channel engagement approach was badly needed. As a result, United Utilities were able to make changes which really made a difference to customers’ lives. These included:
- Being in debt is embarrassing: Using SMS and online live chat alleviates this
- People need advisory organisation partnerships
- People need community organisations and outreach
- Facebook is a hugely important tool for communication
- People need genuinely free phone numbers and helplines
Since implementing the findings of the research, United Utilities has increased the number of scheme sign-ups by 40,000, and has reduced bad debt in the area significantly.