Ofwat’s vision for the water sector in England and Wales is one where “customers, the environment and wider society have trust and confidence in vital public water and wastewater services”.
Trust is a key measure in the water industry and new evidence shows encouraging signs that water companies are performing well on customer trust compared with their counterparts in the energy sector.
However, issues around charging and profitability remain – particularly in England – and the industry needs to do more to build trust among customers.
The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) has been measuring household customers’ trust in their water company for a number of years. The most recent measure, published in its Water Matters: Annual Tracking Survey this week, puts levels of trust at their highest for five years.
Customers’ trust in their energy company has also increased, although it remains lower than the corresponding measure for water.
In a recent survey of 1,000 households in England and Wales, DJS Research looked into why customers trust or don’t trust
their water company. In line with the CCWater findings, it found that the majority of customers (64 per cent) trust their water company, with households in Wales more likely to trust their water company than those in England (75 per cent versus 63 per cent for England).
The main reason why customers trust their water company is because their water and sewerage services are reliable. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of those who trust their supplier picked this as one of the top three reasons why, with this figure increasing to 87 per cent among those aged 65+.
Whilst reliable service was selected most often as a top reason for trust in every region of England and Wales, the percentage choosing this varied dramatically. For example, 81 per cent of customers in Wales select this as one of the top three reasons driving trust, while in London reliability is chosen by only 49 per cent.
Second to reliability comes value for money and customer service, with 41 per cent saying that their bills are good value and 39 per cent saying they have had good customer service from their water company.
Within England and Wales, huge regional differences emerge for secondary drivers of trust.
In London and the South East, having an affordable bill (45 per cent and 43 per cent respectively) is the next most selected reason for trust, whereas in the North East, South West, Wales and East Midlands a good customer service experience is chosen ahead of affordability (41 per cent, 35 per cent, 38 per cent and 40 per cent).
Another interesting finding for London is that one-fifth of customers trusting their supplier say they do so because their water supplier is a good employer. This is higher than in any other region.
Matters of principle
Where customers expressed distrust of their water supplier, this tended to be based on views about charges and principles rather than service. One in ten customers don’t trust their supplier and this is most likely to be because they see their water bills as poor value for money (42 per cent), or as unaffordable (20 per cent). Perceptions of water company profits are also important, with 46 per cent choosing this as one of their reasons to distrust.
Customers in Wales are least likely to say that their bills are poor value or that too much is given to “fat cats” and shareholders. This may be explained by the fact that the main supplier in Wales, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, is a not-for-profit organisation. As highlighted before, customers in Wales have come out as most trusting in our survey.
Some customers (25 per cent) feel fairly neutral about trust. We asked them what their water company could do to help them form a more trusting view and almost two-thirds (62 per cent) said that reducing their bill or giving less money to shareholders (31 per cent) would help.
To engender trust, it is important that water companies can identify and engage these households, offering them money-saving solutions, be these tariffs, meters or water efficiency tips, and that they can show customers how their services are value for money.
In addition, it is key that companies communicate openly and transparently about why they need to make profits, where they go and whether they plan to share them with customers at some point.
Ali Sims, research director, DJS Research
CCWater viewpoint: the past price review shows the value of engaging with customers
DJS’s findings reinforce our long-held view that customers’ trust in the water industry is built on two essential factors: value for money and reliable service. That’s why over the past decade so much of our work has focused on helping water companies understand and meet customers’ expectations in these two areas. Our own research suggests this work is starting to bear fruit as water companies are beginning to achieve increasing levels of trust, mirrored by a rise in customer satisfaction with value for money.
Water companies are now listening to their customers, with the price review demonstrating what can be achieved when the industry commits to authentic engagement with its customers.
But while trust is difficult to secure, it can be quickly lost, which is why water companies cannot afford to be complacent. While the comparisons with energy are favourable, water remains only marginally ahead of an industry where consumer trust has suffered repeated setbacks and controversies.
That’s why over the next five years we want to see water companies build even greater trust by delivering on the promises made during the price review and continuing their “conversation” with customers. That includes communicating clearly to customers what they are getting in return for their money and showing greater transparency over their finances.
Tony Smith, chief executive, Consumer Council for Water
ICS viewpoint: complaints handling is where it all goes wrong
The utilities sector has improved its level of customer satisfaction more than any other sector in the UK over the past 12 months, with the latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index revealing that satisfaction has risen by 2 points, since July 2014.
Yet despite the rate of improvement that is evident, it must be said that utility companies started from a low base. It is still the lowest performing sector in the Institute of Customer Service Index and there is a huge degree of polarisation, with some of best performing utilities companies hailing from the water sector as well as some of those identified as the poorest.
Utilities perform least well compared with the national average on a number of complaint handling measures such as staff doing what they say they will do and speed of resolving complaints. A third of customers, for example, said staff “seemed uninterested” when handling a complaint, compared with just 17.1 per cent who were sympathetic.
They do, however, perform well with satisfaction around pricing showing the biggest improvement of any single measure. To keep moving in the right direction companies in the sector need to focus on all elements of the customer experience. Evidence suggests that when they do, satisfaction levels increase.
Jo Causon, chief executive, Institute of Customer Service