CCWater’s annual complaints report shows written complaints at a 20-year low, but celebrations are muted because ‘unwanted contacts’ show a worrying increase. Katey Pigden reports.

A strongly worded letter is a powerful tool for disgruntled customers, especially when they want to inform a company that it has failed to live up to expectations. It’s a fact that water companies will be acutely aware of in the wake of the recent report by the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) on complaints in the sector.

The report warned that after significant reductions in previous years, the improving trend for written complaints and unwanted contacts (calls unwanted from the customer’s perspective) has “stalled” in the water industry since 2014/15.

On the plus side, companies in England and Wales received fewer than 100,000 written complaints in 2016/17, for the first time in more than 20 years. However CCWater insists that the proliferation of complaints channels, including web chat tools and social media platforms as well as more established channels like telephone and email, mean that the quality of complaints handling – not to mention problems around “unwanted contacts” from utilities firms – is under pressure more than ever before.

With the prospect of being named and shamed on CCWater’s complaints league table, water companies need to get better at reducing the causes of complaints and resolving customer issues.

CCWater’s 11th complaints report, released on 20 September, showed an increase of more than 40,000 in “unwanted contacts” to 2.14 million, which offset the 20-year low for written complaint submissions in 2016/17. The consumer champion is now pressing companies to “get customer service right first time”, while CCWater chief executive Tony Smith adds: “We’ll be challenging all of the industry to deliver an even better service, but particularly the poorest performers.”

Of the laggards, CCWater’s report showed that Cambridge Water’s performance generates the most cause for concern, with a drastic rise of nearly 250 per cent in written complaints. The company is now required to report to CCWater by the end of October to explain what it is doing to improve service.

A spokesperson for CCWater tells Utility Week: “We will be keeping up pressure on the industry. We don’t want to see a reversal of the improving trend. There is no room for complacency.

“We will name and shame poor performers but we also want to praise companies when they do well. Ultimately, we want the industry to get it right first time.”

As with previous years, the report predominantly centres on written complaints, because they provide detailed information and a comparable way of assessing the performance of each company.

Yet, acknowledging customers are increasingly contacting companies by other means, CCWater also looked at unwanted contacts to determine a company’s performance. Future reports will look at complaints through all channels, including social media. So, even today’s strong performing companies will need to make sure they are on top of their game in every area going forward.

Overall, written complaints received between April 2016 and March 2017 fell by 11 per cent compared with 2015/16. Water companies received 95,274 written complaints, down from 106,839, with 12 of the 21 companies reporting a fall.

Dee Valley (-35.4 per cent), South East (-30.3 per cent), South West (-29.3 per cent) and Anglian (-25.3 per cent) all made noticeable improvements. Southern Water, Bournemouth, Affinity and Welsh Water, which have been required to submit quarterly reports to CCWater after showing significant increases in 2015/16, also reported fewer complaints.

Despite seeing the largest reduction (-44.5 per cent) in written complaints, Southern remained the worst performer across the board and must continue to provide regular reports, along with Affinity and Welsh Water.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth is no longer on the “watch list” after seeing a fall in written complaints (-32.5 per cent) and unwanted contacts (-25.7 per cent).

Bucking the downward trend of the sector, nine companies reported an increase in customers writing to express dissatisfaction, including Bristol (+67.9 per cent) and Portsmouth (+53.8 per cent), which saw significant setbacks against their previous improving trends.

For unwanted contacts, five companies saw double digit increases, with Southern (+53.8 per cent), SES Water (+51.6 per cent) and Cambridge (+37.2 per cent) showing substantial rises.

Responding to the report’s findings, Michael Roberts, Water UK’s chief executive, said industry improvements have been making a difference, with a significant fall in the number of issues being dealt with over the phone since 2010. He adds: “As an industry we want to keep getting better, and make sure the downward trend in complaints and the increase in customer satisfaction continues.”

Roberts says companies are investing billions of pounds in improving their customer service levels. But CCWater argues that there is a major opportunity for the water industry to improve its handling of complaints about billing and charges if it wants to see a real reduction in complaint levels.

Of the 95,000 written complaints received from household and non-household customers, more than 54,000 related to billing and charges. The category has always accounted for over half of all written complaints to companies, and for more than 50 per cent of the complaints handled by CCWater. A near 10,000 fall in the number of billing and charges complaints accounted for the vast majority of the overall reduction in written complaints for the period.

The watchdog says it will work with companies to find the root cause of complaints. It says: “We will continue to ask poor performing companies to provide regular reports until we are satisfied. secure a favourable position in the next complaints report.

Moving forward

CCWater’s collaborative approach to raising the performance of poor performers is laudable, but the challenge for laggards under the current regime for water sector complaints tracking is about to step up a gear.

For next year, CCWater’s scrutiny of complaints will extend to social media channels and review the number of communications options each company provides, as a measure of their approachability. The change marks a step towards the new “C-MEX” customer satisfaction incentive which Ofwat has proposed for PR19, a mechanism which is designed to stretch companies, but also promises bigger rewards for top achievers.

With both the size of the prize and the size of the challenge for good complaints handling on the up, there has never been a better time for companies to raise their game.


Case studies, written complaints

Best performer – Dee Valley

Dee Valley replaced Portsmouth as the best performing company after it reduced written complaints for the sixth successive year, with a decrease of 35 per cent.

A spokesperson for Severn Trent, which acquired Dee Valley earlier this year, said: “While the figures in the report are heartening, there’s always more that we can, and will, do to improve things.

“We’ve made very real progress in areas such as sewer flooding, which can be one of the most terrible things anyone can experience. We’re committed to doing the best job we can for customers, and to finding ways to make things even better.”


Most improved – Bournemouth Water

Bournemouth Water has returned to its usual position of being one of the better performing companies after reducing its complaints through improvements to its case management system.

A spokesperson, said: “We’re pleased that the number of written complaints we receive has fallen by one-third since last year and we have reduced the number of ‘unwanted contacts’ by 26 per cent. Our customer satisfaction rating is 95 per cent.

“When we receive a complaint, we work very hard to resolve it as quickly as possible and we keep customers fully informed at all stages while we investigate. We analyse all complaints and identify areas where we can improve further.”


Worst performer – Southern Water

Southern Water has the highest number of written complaints per 10,000 connected properties, despite seeing a drop of 45 per cent.

Southern’s increase of 77,082 (+54 per cent) in unwanted contacts was a result of a review of the company’s internal recording process. Simon Oates, chief customer officer, said: “Although we are still down the foot of the table I am really proud of our written complaints reduction.

“We know we have more to do but we are fully focused on delivering improvements to move up the table.

“We have improved our digital communication channels and have made changes to our billing and debt prevention processes.”


Most deteriorated – Cambridge Water

Cambridge Water was labelled a “cause for concern” by CCWater after it saw a 249 per cent increase in written complaints, while unwanted contacts also rose.

The main cause of the increase was customer disquiet about its billing and collections activity when it transferred its customer service activities to parent company South Staffs.

Phil Newland, managing director, said: “We’re extremely disappointed with the level of complaints received during 2016/17 because for many years we have been one of the industry’s top performing companies.

“We received 488 complaints last year compared to our usual average of around 190 per year.

He said the company has identified areas of improvement and is working with CCWater, sharing regular updates with them. It expects to see a full recovery by next year.

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