In a recent LinkedIn article by George Hawkins, he discusses the top issues both utilities and service providers should focus on when implementing change. Developing a consumer request program for lead testing is definitely a change to the status quo. Recognizing the need for establishing that kind of program lies in George’s second tip for providers—nurture your EQ.
EQ, or emotional intelligence, is a person’s ability to recognize, express, and understand their own emotions and the emotions of the people they share the world with. Improving your EQ means you’re more prepared to handle the stress that comes with change, even for people who are more comfortable with change. In many cases, consumers just want information. They want to know the water they drink is safe. Why then do some consumers feel like their questions about lead are met with defensiveness or suspicion when they reach out to their water utility?
In a recent Water in Real Life podcast interview with change management consultant, Sarah Zink, she explained that it’s in a human being’s innate nature to become defensive when confronted with change. “Emotional intelligence is tied to the physiology of our emotions which is tied to our lizard brain,” Zink explains. Our lizard brain, or the amygdala, is what controls our response to fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Consumers asking more questions about the water and how utilities treat it is a significant shift from the past when water providers typically stayed behind the scenes. It’s no wonder this change is impacting the amygdala of water professional’s across the country.
After all, they work around the clock to ensure the safety of the water in the distribution system. From their perspective, it must sting to have their work questioned. From the consumer’s perspective, however, the question is rooted in intentions far less nefarious than questioning the hard work or integrity of trained water professionals.
Lack of information breeds fear and distrust. Many water utilities are currently only armed with the lead and copper rule in response to lead testing inquiries. The limited reach of those requirements may leave consumers feeling less than warm and fuzzy with that response alone. If people are experiencing health symptoms, they go to a subject matter expert—a doctor, a hospital, a clinic. When someone has questions about water, regardless of whose responsibility it is, they call their water utility.
Doctors would rather their patients book an appointment rather than self-diagnose on WebMD. Similarly, water providers should want their consumers coming to them for answers versus getting their information from the black hole of misinformation that often permeates social media. While it may not be your responsibility as a water utility to diagnose and treat their private plumbing, you are the subject matter expert. You should be the person you want your customers getting information about their water from.
Why not prescribe them a lead test from a consumer request program? Tell them what to do if their lead test does indicate lead in their private plumbing. Give them the knowledge they need to find an NSF lead-tested filter at the store.
As Sarah said, “the amygdala doesn’t recognize the difference between a threat to your ego and a threat to your body.” It’s perfectly natural and human to not be jumping for joy about people questioning your product. Yes, we said product. Water toes a fine line between being a product and a service, it’s a little of both.
Treating water more like a product creates a window of opportunity for water providers to strengthen the bridge between the water they produce and the people they serve. Creating a consumer request program may be one of the changes the industry needs to influence the value the public sees in a water system. As George Hawkins stated in his article, ”Change that improves customer service is the premise of the value proposition. Change that improves services to the city, or enables a success for elected officials, gains friends where we need them!”