Importance of Consumer Complaints for Water Safety:
Consumers may become aware of potential problems with the safety of their drinking-water because of their own senses or informal networks. To a large extent, consumers have no means of judging the safety of their drinking-water themselves, but their attitude towards their drinking-water supply and their drinking-water suppliers will be affected to a considerable extent by the aspects of water quality that they are able to perceive with their own senses. It is natural for consumers to regard with suspicion water that appears dirty or discoloured or that has an unpleasant taste or smell, even though these characteristics may not in themselves be of direct consequence to health. Trust and goodwill from consumers are extremely important in both the short and long term. Consumers have an important role to play in assisting the authorities in an incident by their own actions and by carrying out the necessary measures at the household level.
Figure-1. 1Components of a Contamination Warning System for Water Utilities
Consumer feedback and complaints provide utilities with useful data about consumer perceptions of aesthetic water quality in the distribution system. As real-time sensors, consumers are uniquely positioned to provide feedback. Their feedback may be as specific as say "chlorine smell" or general such as "polluted water", "bad smell", etc. A responsive consumer complaint handling system is an essential aid to development and implementation of water safety plans. Consumer complaints give feedback about acceptability issues such as discoloration, taste, odour and systemic issues such as pressure, timing of supply etc.
Careful analysis of complaints data should help improve operational and maintenance practices. Consumer complaint surveillance (CCS) enhances and automates the collection and analysis of consumer calls reporting unusual water quality concerns and compares trends against an established base-state to detect possible contamination incidents. CCS provides a critical source of timely information about the drinking water distribution system for rapid indication of potential water quality contamination (PWD, 2013). Monitoring call frequency, categorizing and analyzing complaints, spatial analysis, and responding to calls effectively can expedite the detection of and response to contamination events. Accordingly, the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA), views consumer complaint surveillance as an important component of a contamination warning system (Fig-1.1).
The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) observe that monitoring of consumer comments and complaints can provide valuable information on potential problems that may not have been identified by performance monitoring of the water supply system. Because consumers are located throughout distribution systems, they offer a wide-ranging source of information on potential contamination, compared to limited monitoring in the distribution system. Complaints and responses should be recorded and, in the longer term, the types, patterns and changes in numbers of complaints received should be evaluated. The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) in UK advises water supply agencies to have a risk assessment procedure to deal with consumer complaints of water quality or water-related illness to determine if the problem is linked to any operational problem and take appropriate remedial measures (DWI, 2009).
Simple recording of consumer complaints may not adequately represent the scale and scope of problems. Field inquiries and consumer surveys of at least a random sample of consumer complaints will help improve the validity of water quality related information. The objective of the long-term evaluation of consumer satisfaction is to confirm that the complaint handling system is effective for picking up complaints, and particularly any clusters of complaints, related to water quality, and that action plans are adequate and linked suitably to operations. Investigations and response actions should be reviewed to ensure the actions were satisfactory, particularly with respect to any complaints of alleged illness, and that staff are adequately trained to respond effectively.
While tracking the total number of consumer complaints is valuable, understanding the number and types of complaint descriptors is more valuable for identifying the aesthetic issue and implementing process control. Another objective of consumer complaints data analysis is to identify spatial and temporal patterns that may point to particular hazards and the need for intervention either at the Service Reservoir level or in the distribution system. The purpose of temporal analysis is to determine if there are any changes in type of complaints over time and this correlates with other parameters. For example; (a) What proportion of complaints is repeated and successive? (b) Is there a relationship between water quality samples and complaints?, (c) Is there any seasonality of complaints?, etc.
Consumer complaint surveillance refers to a methodology that relies on detecting water quality problems based on consumer input. When implemented as a process control feature for assessing and maintaining water quality in the distribution system, CCS will contribute to a hazardous contaminant warning system (USEPA, 2008; PWD, 2013) and an early detection of aesthetic issues that are problematic for consumers and water supply authorities (Dietrich et al, 2014).