Southern Water, Bristol Water and SES Water have all been warned to improve their customer service and will be required to show what action they are taking to reduce complaints.

A report published by the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) today (20 September) reveals households made more than 2.1 million calls to resolve problems last year.

The water watchdog’s annual complaints report 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 whole industry fell by nearly 17 per cent.

CCWater has immediately turned up the pressure on Bristol Water, Surrey-based SES Water and Southern Water for their “relatively poor performance”.

The three companies have been asked to provide the watchdog with quarterly reports highlighting what action they are taking to reduce complaints.

Southern Water will be under scrutiny after it failed to improve on its position as the industry’s worst performer for the two measures for a third successive year. CCWater said that was despite the company reducing written complaints by a fifth.

Simon Oates, Southern Water’s chief customer officer has pledged to “continue increasing responsiveness and focus on customers’ needs.”

The company said its decrease in written complaints for 2017-18 fell by more than 20 per cent, following a 48 per cent reduction in 2016-17.

“Southern Water is undergoing a period of significant transformation and we are passionate about engaging directly with our customers and communities to help improve our services now and in the future”, Oates said.

He added: “Overall we have reduced complaints by 58 per cent and while we are rapidly closing the gap between ourselves and the rest of the industry, we know that genuine, lasting change takes time.

“We still have a long way to go to meet the standards our customers rightly expect but the changes we’ve introduced this year are driving down complaints, we are more proactively managing customers’ accounts and resolving more problems for customers the first time they call us.”

Meanwhile Bristol Water reported a 37 per cent increase in unwanted contacts and a 52 per cent increase in written complaints.

CCWater 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.

Ben Newby, Bristol Water’s customer services director, said: “I am very disappointed that so many customers felt the need to contact us in the past year and that we have moved from being among the better performers in the industry.  The past year has been one of the most difficult in the company’s history, and we are pleased that CCWater has recognised that four major incidents, including the largest burst in the company history, led to an increase in unwanted calls and written complaints.

“This certainly isn’t an excuse for our performance, and we are committed to improving our customer satisfaction and we will continue working closely with CCWater.”

The company said it is “already making strides” in improving customer service and has seen a “drop” in complaints this year.

A spokesperson for SES Water added: “We are aware of our increase in unwanted telephone contacts and are working hard to focus on delivering the best service possible to every single customer every time.

“Whilst we have seen our complaints reduce by around 5 per cent from 2016-17 to 2017-18, we are currently a midst a two-year programme which is specifically aimed at improving the experience our customers will receive and are fundamentally changing a lot of what we do.

“We’ve seen significant changes from the hard work put into this programme so far with our complaints reducing by 52 per cent from Q1 of this year compared to Q1 of last year. We’re also at a three-year low of 9.8 complaints per 1,000 properties and will continue to work hard to make sure that we get better and deliver well within our target limit going forward.”

Although overall industry 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 criticising 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.”