The power of the customer

Refuse collection vehicle in London

Everybody has heard the saying that the customer is always right. It is the perfect summary of the power that customers have over the market, and for those of us providing air quality solutions, that is no different. Whilst a good customer collaborates with its suppliers to improve products and services, ultimately if they intend to do something, good service providers must comply.

We have found that local authorities often underestimate their purchasing power, and how influential their power as a customer actually is. Take waste collection, where vehicles often a major source of particulate matter. English local authorities spend £3.6 billion on waste collection and disposal. With an overall market size of just that for local authorities, if they start insisting the latest air pollution monitoring technology be deployed for those vehicles, the market will take notice.

But it is encouraging to see that local authorities are waking up to this role. In response to customer demand, Veolia is trialling electric-powered refuse vehicles, that are in turn charged from power from Energy from Waste (EfW) plants in Sheffield. Not only is this in response to customer requirements, but its also an excellent example of customer and supplier collaboration. The supplier provides the vehicles, the customer, the power.

This is not an isolated example. Fleet operators are committing to taking diesel vans off the road in response to local authority demands and restrictions on more polluting vehicles. Through asserting their needs on the market, suppliers are responding in kind.

There is still the opportunity to provide financial incentive to make this transition. In Coventry, the City Council (backed by the Government and industry) are doing just this with the taxi fleet to convert them into electric vehicles. This is a useful means of de-risking transitions and innovation. But it is not a substitute for knowing that there is a market out there.

Supplier can innovate, trial new technologies, and develop services all that they like. But unless they meet a customer need they are doomed to failure. Customers stating their intent in ways that they are increasingly doing for air quality monitoring products is most welcome.