Tony Smith Chief executive, Consumer Council for Water Customers, Domestic water retail, Strategy & management, Water, Opinion, Tony Smith, complaints

"The fact Southern finds itself bottom for the sixth straight year shows that reputational damage is not always enough of an incentive"

When we arrived on the scene exactly 13 years ago we were confronted with a water industry that was facing a growing tide of customer dissatisfaction.

Inflation-busting price rises had fuelled a surge in written complaints, which peaked in 2007/08 at more than 273,000. Fast forward a decade and the publication of our latest complaints tells a very different story. Complaints are now 70 per cent lower than they were during the height of the industry’s troubles.

Not every page of the report makes positive reading, and the fact that customers still had to make 2.1 million “unwanted telephone contacts” to resolve service problems supports our view that the industry still has much more to do.

One of the keys to our long-term success in driving down complaints has been the use of comparative data to publicly expose poor performers, while praising companies that find themselves at the top of the league. It’s a tactic built on the firm belief that businesses – including water companies – prize their reputation which, much like trust, is hard to earn but all too easy to lose.

Over the years, we’ve met strong resistance from some companies desperate not to be criticised in our report, knowing full well that it will guarantee them a wave of negative headlines. That has made it an invaluable tool in our armoury. Take, for instance, the performance of Bournemouth Water. Two years ago the company came under fire from us for a 90 per cent rise in written complaints and was asked to provide us with quarterly reports highlighting the action it was taking to turn around its performance. Within two years the company has returned to being one of the industry’s best performers.

That’s the kind of reaction we want to see from the three companies – Bristol Water, SES Water and Southern Water – that have been asked to take similar action in the wake of this year’s report.

The fact Southern finds itself bottom for the sixth straight year shows that reputational damage is not always enough of an incentive. Our pursuit of poor performers needs to be backed up by tough regulatory ­penalties. So far the service incentive mechanism (SIM) has provided pressure on complaints, but is this sufficient?

SIM will soon make way for Ofwat’s new C-MeX measure. We support a strong additional incentive which forces companies to look at improving their general customer perception. But there also needs to be pressure on complaint performance that is strong enough to improve any water companies that are in danger of lagging behind. Whether C-MeX will do this remains to be seen.

Only time will tell whether C-MeX aids or hampers our efforts to keep a foot on the throat of companies that should and could do better.

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