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Three companies scolded by watchdog for customer complaints

Three water companies have been warned to improve their customer service as a new report by the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) reveals households made more than 2.1 million calls to resolve problems last year.

Today’s (20 September) annual complaints report by the Water Watchdog shows that nine out of 21 water companies in England and Wales reported an increase in calls from customers to resolve problems – known as ‘unwanted’ contacts.

Four companies also reported an increase in written complaints from their customers, although the number to the industry as a whole fell by nearly 17 per cent.

CCWater has immediately turned up the pressure on Bristol Water, SES Water and Southern Water for their relatively poor performance. These three companies have been asked to provide the watchdog with quarterly reports highlighting what action they are taking to reduce complaints.

Although complaints fell during the year there was a 10 per cent rise in the number relating to water supply, as some water companies struggled with the disruption caused by the sudden thaw following March’s ‘Beast from the East’. More than 200,000 customers were left without running water with many households critisising the poor communication and support they received from their supplier.

Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said: “The frustration felt by thousands of customers after March’s cold weather disruption to supplies should have reminded the industry that it cannot afford to be complacent.

“Some water companies still have a lot to learn when it comes to communicating effectively with their customers and ensuring that when something goes wrong they put it right quickly and with the minimum of fuss. The poor performers highlighted in our report can expect to come under considerable pressure from us to improve this year.”

Disputes about billing and charges accounted for more than half (53 per cent) of the written complaints received by the industry, despite a 22 per cent reduction compared to the previous year. The other main causes for complaint included issues with water supply (22 per cent) and sewerage service (11.5 per cent).

Southern Water will be asked to provide quarterly reports to the watchdog for a third successive year after failing to improve on its position as the industry’s worst performer for both measures. That was despite the company reducing written complaints by a fifth.

Bristol Water reported a 37 per cent increase in unwanted contacts and a 52 per cent increase in written complaints. CCWater said it is also concerned about the poor performance of SES Water, which reported a 21 per cent rise in unwanted contacts. Both water-only companies have been asked to report back to the watchdog by the end of October on what steps they have taken to improve their service and curb complaints.

But there was better news for customers of Anglian Water, which is now the industry’s best performer for unwanted contacts. The company also reported a 26 per cent fall in written complaints.

Bournemouth Water also deserves praise for delivering one of the biggest reductions in written complaints (40 per cent). It completes an impressive turnaround for the south-coast company, having responded positively to CCWater’s challenge to reverse a large rise in complaints two years ago.

Since peaking in 2007/08, written complaints against water companies in England and Wales have reduced by almost 70 per cent as CCWater has pressed the industry to improve its service to customers. However, ‘unwanted contacts’ have not reduced over the last three years and the watchdog is urging companies not to be complacent.

Fewer household customers had to turn to CCWater for help resolving a dispute in 2017/18, with the watchdog handling 6,815 complaints from household customers – down 13 per cent. The watchdog helped to return almost £1.4 million in financial redress to customers.

Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts welcomed the overall drop in complaints.
“It’s pleasing to see a fall in complaints this year despite the impact of the Beast from the East and the dry summer," he said. "The figures published today continue a downward trend in both metrics, with complaints and unwanted calls falling by almost 70 per cent over the last decade.
“Despite customer satisfaction levels of around 90 per cent, we know there is more to do. The industry has recently unveiled plans to reduce bills and invest £50 billion between 2020 and 2025 in order to improve services for consumers, including cutting leakage by 16 per cent.”

Alex Prentice, senior client partner from independent experts Huntswood, said: “How companies handle customer complaints will be a key consideration for Ofwat when reviewing the PR19 business plans submitted over the past few weeks.

"It will be difficult for firms to justify price increases if effective measures are not put in place to improve customer service levels, particularly as inadequate progress appears to have been made over the past three years. Water companies are delivering a public service and therefore must focus on delivering better outcomes and services for customers that build trust in the industry."

You can read the full CCWater report here.

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Policy & Regulation
Tags: customer service , Southern Water , Bristol Water , Water UK , SES Water , Consumer Council for Water , CCWater

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