Despite the range of additional support services available to vulnerable water customers, research by the Consumer Council for Water has revealed that awareness of this assistance is still low. Our policy manager Janine Shackleton looks at what more the water industry can do to help those most in need.
Earlier this year CCWater published research showing that fewer than half of customers know their water company offers extra help for people living in vulnerable circumstances.
If you’re visually impaired your company can provide your bill in large print or braille. If you’re on dialysis it will make sure you get a constant supply of water. And if you’re unsure whether a caller claiming to be from your water company is genuine, you can get a special password so you can check their identity.
Although customers’ awareness of these ‘priority services’ has risen over the past few years it fell sharply in 2016 – down 6% to 44% – a clear indication that there’s a real need for improvement.
CCWater believes the 2019 Price Review (PR19) offers water companies a golden opportunity to make these services easier for their customers to access and also to continually improve them.
When the industry regulator Ofwat publishes its final PR19 methodology in December we want it to show more ambition in encouraging water companies to tackle vulnerability issues. As part of its draft methodology, Ofwat published guidelines regarding performance commitments (PCs), which are a pledge that companies make to their customers regarding service levels in order to secure the desired outcomes. We want to see both common and bespoke PCs that focus specifically on vulnerability. We believe this is essential for raising awareness and incentivising companies to take action.
Putting customers at the heart of decisions
Consumers are best placed to say whether the service offered by their company meets their needs. Therefore, we want to see all companies involving their customers in designing inclusive and accessible services based on real-life behaviour and the needs of the end user.
To achieve this we propose a common PC based on the percentage of consumers who agree that the services offered by their water provider meets their need. This is a question that should be put forward to all customers, regardless of their circumstances. This is because vulnerability can be transient as well as permanent. In other words, you can find yourself in vulnerable circumstances at any time in your life.
Common measures will be helpful in comparing water companies’ performance in addressing vulnerability. Qualitative research methods should be used to capture customers’ views on whether they are aware of the additional help available from their company and whether they find the services accessible.
We believe that either of the following measures would be effective in establishing that support is reaching those who need it most:
- The percentage of consumers aware that additional help available. This would track how effective companies have been in engaging with consumers.
- The percentage of consumers satisfied that their company’s services are easy to access. This would track whether consumers believe that companies are designing and implementing easy to access and inclusive services.
The industry as a whole should work collaboratively, but also more widely with others on addressing vulnerability. This will ensure that consumers get a tailored service that is continuously reviewed and improved.
We’ve seen the benefits of collaborative working with the sector and beyond. There are good examples of where water companies have found joint solutions in other areas, such as catchment management and flooding. We feel the approach of having bespoke PCs for partnership working on vulnerability would benefit consumers.
All companies should have a common PC in their business plan to incentivise them to provide inclusive and accessible services for their customers. This common PC should be reputational only so that companies don’t profit financially through assisting those customers who are in vulnerable circumstances.
We look forward to seeing our proposals included in Ofwat’s PR19 methodology next month.