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Building trust into water service agreements

About the blog

Amir Cahn
SWAN Executive Director and PhD Candidate


  • Building trust into water service agreements

Water utilities need to secure reliable infrastructure, yet often lack the internal capacity to do so, thus gaining support from external partners is becoming increasingly important.

In service arrangements, contracts and relationships must serve as compliments. A poorly written contract cannot be overcome by friendly account managers while substandard contracts generally make for poor relationships. Therefore, trust is really the glue between contracts and relationships.

Trust is a combination of integrity, reliability, and mutual caring, beneficial to all types of partnerships that face risk and require constant flexibility. However, very high trust partnerships sometimes fail to innovate. If a team enjoys a high-level of trust and mutual caring, there may be too much compromise. In such cases, a team member would prefer to please his partner rather than to openly question the partner’s ideas, decisions, and actions.

There are many ways a water utility can approach a service contract, which fall into two main categories: supplier product support and customer process support. Product support services can include basic maintenance or preventive services and customer support can include training, workshops, and in-depth collaboration.

In certain cases, customers may be more inclined to take a passive role, for example relying on autonomous, remote monitoring or advanced telematics (e.g. LoRa or Sigfox) managed directly by the service provider. Similarly, some customers may lack time, resources, or incentives to be actively engaged. In other cases, customers may be heavily involved in service deployment, integrating their internal skills, staff, and time to learn about the offering in order to achieve the best outcomes and upskill their workforce.

The table below shows a helpful visualization of the different types of service relationships as referenced in the 4C framework developed by Carlborg et al. (2018). It shows examples of passive vs. active customers and the critical success factors for each relational mode: Caretaker, Constructor, Cicerone (Facilitator), and Consultant.

Source: Adapted from the 4C framework

Application to the Water Sector

Caretaker: Usually relating to capital-intensive products, the customer is willing to allow a knowledgeable party take care of its problems or manage the equipment in question. Within the water sector, this applies to the Data-as-Service (DaaS) model, in which a technology supplier operates and maintains certain hardware equipment to collect, transmit, and process data and the utility only pays for the final results.

Constructor: The customer is less inclined to commit its own resources (staff, knowledge), so the supplier engages more actively with the customer’s processes. Within the water sector, this relates to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions, in which a technology supplier must develop deep skills to systematically measure and learn about the customer’s situation and internal processes.

Cicerone (Facilitator): The supplier engages and guides the customer, who then becomes increasingly able to manage the situations alone. Within the water sector, this is performed by industry forums such as the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN) and specialized experts.

Consultant: The customer actively contributes its own resources and labor to solve unique challenges in collaboration with the supplier. This may include building teams of operatives that can work together at different levels of management. Within the water sector, this applies to design engineering and consulting firms.

To be successful, each of these roles depends on effective collaboration and co-creating value. Directly linked to this is the core issue of trust. For instance, water utilities must be able to trust the cloud, AI solutions and related security. Likewise, technology providers and consultants must trust that their utility customers utilize their solutions and advice. Now is the time to work together to reinvent our water future. 

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