South Staffs Water Community Hub
...one year on
Over the past three years, South Staffs Water has particularly focused on building relationships with customers in communities which are facing sustained challenges – as a result of low incomes and social deprivation, for example.
We have been open to new and innovative thinking, reinforced by the need to do the right thing for our customers, regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in.
What we found is that there are customers who cannot or do not want to access essential public services through digital self-serve channels or contact centres, these are often, but not exclusively, in groups that can be categorised as needing extra help and support. As our extensive engagement has demonstrated, our customers are diverse and require suitably diverse ways to access our services and engage with us. Our job is to meet their needs and deliver public value.
We also recognised that while we could be a catalyst for change within the communities we serve, we could not and should not operate alone. Instead, we decided that our focus would be on entering into partnerships and collaborations with other agencies and groups that are already visible, active and trusted in these communities.
One outcome of this thinking was our community hub, which opened in Wednesbury in our South Staffs region on 27 April 2018 – initially for a 12-month trial period.
After some consideration we decided to ‘give it a go’ and learn from the experience.
Our vision for this innovative approach was that it should be a friendly and accessible location, enabling ‘hidden’ customers, who might not otherwise make contact, to interact with us and other support agencies face to face.
In deciding on the location, we analysed a range of socio-economic and demographic information – including population density and public transport links – combined with our own social tariff and Priority Services Register data.
One year on and our community hub is a tangible success story for us – not just in terms of the numbers of customers that we have reached, but also in terms of the organisations and community groups with which we have established meaningful, long-term partnerships and collaborations.
As well as helping to raise our profile in the communities we serve, it has impacted on customers’ lives in ways that often fall outside the traditional remit of a regulated monopoly water company. This is challenging territory.
About the community hub
Known locally as the “water shop”, our community hub is a welcoming and flexible space. It has a seating area, children’s activities area, a job vacancy board and a bank of iPads that can be used for online activities, including using our MyAccount and PayNow services.
In addition, there is an area that community groups and organisations can use for meetings, with a private seating area for sensitive conversations. There is also an additional meeting room on the first floor that can accommodate small groups of up to ten people.
From the outset, we have collaborated with a number of groups and community organisations, which use the space regularly to host meetings or to hold events.
These groups include:
JobCentre Plus - which uses the space to host jobs fairs and offer careers advice as there is no Job Centre in Wednesbury.
Citizens Advice - which hosts a successful weekly surgery at the hub.
Sandwell Council of Voluntary Organisations - which supports voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations in Sandwell, and which holds regular surgeries and drop in sessions in the hub.
Healthwatch Sandwell - which champions health and social care in the Sandwell region.
Digital Coaching - which is available through Citizens Advice, and which provides one-to-one digital support advice, with particular reference to Universal Credit implementation;
My Time Active Sandwell - which offers coaching and support to help people become more active and healthy;
Ideal For All - which provides a range of social care services to support people with physical disabilities or mental health problems;
Just Straight Talk - which provides support to get people’s lives back on track and which holds weekly meetings at the hub.
Npower - which holds a monthly energy advice surgery at the hub.
Accord Age Matters - which provides help and support for people over the age of 50, and advice for people who are keen to get involved in volunteering opportunities.
In addition, two local Sandwell councillors are also planning to use the hub to hold regular surgeries with their constituents.
Links and partnerships
Partnership working is at the core of our community hub’s ethos. As we have got to know the customers who engage with us through the hub and earned their trust, we have understood more about their needs beyond the water we supply. With this in mind, we have established links with a number of organisations to help our customers further.
We are working with Npower and its Fuel Support Initiative. Npower works with the Trussell Trust to offer top-up vouchers for around two weeks’ worth of fuel to customers deemed in “crisis need”, helping to prevent self-disconnection. We are unique in that we are approved to provide these vouchers to customers who visit the hub and who have the greatest need.
Our hub is a food donation point for Breaking Bread, a food bank in Wednesbury, which is only open two days a week. We can also distribute vouchers, again for those in crisis so they can obtain a food parcel at the food bank. Breaking Bread values the help and support it gets from our hub.
We work with Morsbags, an organisation that recycles old duvet covers and curtains into reusable shopping bags. In return for supplying us with bags, we have raised awareness of the organisation on social media and have taken donations of material to enable more bags to be made.
More recently, we became a donation point for Shoe Aid, a charity that aims to supply free shoes to children and adults who cannot afford to buy new footwear. As part of this, we are planning to install shoe bins at our offices.
Our hub is of course a Refill point, so anyone can pop in to refill their reusable bottle with water.
This initiative has been an important one for us and we have learned a lot about our customers – especially those that we have previously considered hard to reach. We have also gained important insight from our customers about the following.
We have found that our customers are more willing to engage when they understand more about the benefits of having a water meter. There is a misconception among some of our customers that they are like energy prepayment meters and that they could run out of water if they run out of credit. We are using this learning to encourage more customers to opt for a water meter.
We have been overwhelmed by the number of customers who visit our hub looking for jobs or who need support to find employment. This has led us into partnerships with the likes of JobCentre Plus and Digital Coaching to provide information and advice on things like writing CVs and covering letters.
Enhancing our customer research
While our extensive customer engagement has given us insight about the things that matter most to our customers, our hub has brought to our attention the areas that the research has not highlighted – such as very nuanced customer needs that can only be understood and captured through a face to face discussion e.g. the complex needs of customers with mental health issues.
Community groups now approaching us
Our community hub is now a firmly established fixture in Wednesbury. As a result, we have been approached by a range of different groups and organisations that are keen to work with us. For example, local Trading Standards teams have approached us to work with them on bogus caller initiatives. We are also a member of the Sandwell Networkers Forum, which brings together local community and voluntary organisations, businesses and social enterprises to share information and best practice. We are beginning to struggle to find slots for groups.
We have also learned other lessons specifically about this particular service channel:
Finding the right location is important
We used a wide range of insights and data from a number of different sources to identify the optimum place to open our hub.
Collaborations and partnerships are crucial
Organisations that already have a presence in the community has helped to drive footfall in our hub. It has also served to raise our profile as a responsible, customer-focused business.
Public bodies also need access to community spaces
This has been evidenced by the successful partnerships we have formed with JobCentre Plus and Citizens Advice, which both hold regular events and surgeries in our hub.
Doing the right thing for customers
Our data shows that while a call to our contact centre about billing takes about four minutes on average, a customer visit to our hub takes about 25 minutes. In purely economic terms, this makes this particular service channel hard to justify. But working in partnership and collaborating with others helps to make this approach a financially viable one for us, raising our profile in the communities we serve at the same time.
One year on and we are really benefiting from these learnings;
We've tuned the opening hours and the way we approach staffing in the Hub and we’ve diversified the types of events we hold.
This ‘experiment’ has proved to be sustainable and, in our view, invaluable to the communities it serves. It has become a place that both challenges and inspires our staff. It is also a place where our customers can find a unique source of help, support and advice, and creates unique stories each day.
This has recently been demonstrated by the presentation of a “Celebrate Sandwell” award, as a record of achievement for outstanding contributions to the wellbeing of the people of Sandwell.
The Hub enables us to deliver an enhanced service and engage with our customers at a time when our customers’ and their expectations are changing. So we are taking the things we have learned into the planning for a second community hub, which will open towards the end of this financial year. We have also had interest in our hub from other water companies, with a number of them visiting over the past 12 months.