Start the Customer Conversation Before an Ask

Gary Conkling gave a presentation designed to help water officials make a big splash with their marketing. Water utilities need proactive, out-of-the-box communications strategies to connect with constituents who care about clean water, but don't it much thought in their daily life.

Speaking at an Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies conference in Salem, CFM President Gary Conkling urged water officials to concentrate on information that is useful and relevant to their customers, presented in easy-to-access and easy-to-understand ways.

"Your information needs to be presented simply, packaged effectively and designed imaginatively to pull readers to your content and connect with your agency," Conkling said. "And it's all not just about a website. Friendly, helpful counter clerks and service techs who deal directly with customers can project an agency that wants to help."

His presentation on "Mapping a Communications Strategy" was part of a workshop that also included discussions on how to win community support for water projects. Around 150 people from throughout the Pacific Northwest attended.

Conkling encouraged water officials to embrace a marketer's perspective in their communications, starting with grassroots research that enables them to develop "customer personas." "It is easier to see how to talk about water to a personalized face instead of a statistic," he said. "Your communications will be closer to the mark if you aim them at people who are your customers."

An advantage enjoyed by water agencies, Conkling said, is having a database of customers with whom the agency is in monthly contact. "Your database can be a platform for finding out what matters to your customers," he explained "and turning them into your community partners through regular engagement."

Since people aren't sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear from a local water agency, "you have to find useful and even entertaining ways to connect with them," Conkling said.

"It's a lot better to have the conversation already under way," he advised," than waiting for the moment when you need to ask customers to agree to a rate hike."

Conking leads CFM's public relations practice, which includes strategic communications counsel, managing public issues, crisis response and reputation management.