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Monday, July 4, 2011

Sewing the seeds of defection.

This holiday weekend, my county got a good lesson in how a failure with one service encounter can create a trcikledown of additional failures. The local water company, WaterOne, experienced a loss in pressure in their lines. Because they couldn’t guarantee the safety of the water during that time, they issued a countywide water boil advisory for roughly 36 hours.

From the beginning to its (thankfully) rapid end, the boil advisory impacted local residents and businesses significantly.

The idea that Johnson County might not have safe drinking water for a few hours sent residents into a frenzy. Water flew off the shelves of local grocery stores, leaving local businesses failing their regular local customers at a moment when those customers perceived they needed them most.

Service businesses that use water as an input to their experience (i.e. most food services businesses, including this Starbucks) had a major operations hurdle to overcome. At best, they increased cost to work around an input quality issue not of their making. At worst, they were unable to operate.

For businesses that depend on other services as an input to their experience, what is their recourse for the a failure like this? Usually, the utility tells them they don’t have to pay for service for the period in which it was inaccessible or unreliable. But what about increased operational cost? Lost revenue? Utilities are often insulated from the threat of customer defection due to dissatisfaction. They almost as often act that way.

It’s a reminder that service failures at utilities are unusual, but when they happen, they’re deeply felt. They're the kinds of events that, even if they only ever happen once, get companies thinking about contingency plans, “what-if” scenario planning based entirely on the idea that “we don’t ever want to go through that again.”

No matter how secure a business is in their local market - even if they enjoy a monopoly - this exercise gets customers looking for alternatives.

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