Watchdog targets poor performers as majority of water companies reduce complaints

Two-thirds of water companies reported a fall in written complaints from their customers last year – but a rapid improvement is needed from two of England’s suppliers.

That’s according to the latest annual household customer complaint handling report (pdf) from the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), which compares the performance of water companies in England and Wales across a series of measures.1

It reveals that complaints made in writing by customers increased by almost 10,000 in 2019-20 – a 13 per cent rise fuelled largely by a substantial increase in billing-related problems encountered by households in the Thames Water region. Thames Water and Southern Water were the only two suppliers to perform poorly across all eight comparative measures used by CCW in the report, including complaints received in writing and those escalated to the consumer watchdog.2

CCW’s Chief Executive Emma Clancy has written to both companies calling for an urgent improvement and has offered to support them in their efforts to tackle the root causes of their poor performance in 2019-20.

There was much better news for customers of Bournemouth Water, United Utilities, Wessex Water and Bristol Water who have been rated as the four best performing companies.

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said: “Consumers’ expectations of their water company are very simple – they want accurate, affordable bills and a service they can always rely on but some suppliers are still not getting the basics right.”

“It’s encouraging most of the industry is heading in the right direction but we want to see a big reduction in the large number of disputes over bills which still cause many customers enormous frustration, as well as resolving more complaints at the first time of asking.”

Written complaints made to water companies reached their highest level for four years at 84,649 but the total was skewed by the poor performance of Thames Water. It was hit by an additional 12,619 complaints – up 57% – to mark it out as one of the industry’s worst performers for the second successive year. The three other companies challenged by CCW to improve in last year’s report – Northumbrian Water, Essex and Suffolk Water and Hafren Dyfrdwy – all took significant strides to reduce complaints.

Across the industry problems with bills – including disputes over how much water a household has used and the recovery of debt – continued to cause customers the biggest headache, accounting for almost two-thirds (65%) of complaints. Thames Water was the worst performer for these type of complaints with the company citing the rollout of its new billing system and an IT issue in the final quarter of the year for the sharp increase.

CCW was also disappointed to see Southern Water lose some of the good progress it had previously made after a 22 per cent increase in written complaints. The company also lagged behind the rest of the industry when it came to resolving complaints at the earliest stage of the process.

CCW continued to provide invaluable support to customers at loggerheads with their company, stepping in to help resolve more than 6,700 complaints from aggrieved households and returning almost £1.5 million in financial redress.

The consumer body is also undertaking a raft of changes to help the industry drive down complaints by improving the way it compares and challenges company performance and bringing companies together to share good complaint handling practice.

Read the full report (pdf)

1 The report compares the performance of the industry across a series of measures including written complaints made to water companies, escalated complaints and those received by CCW, as well as investigations carried out by the consumer watchdog into the most serious cases of complaint handling failures.

2 CCW compares water companies’ performance based on the number of complaints per 10,000 connections to take into account the large variations in customer bases.

For more information, call the media team on 0121 345 1005.

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