Water watchdog overwhelmed by complaints

The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) has failed to meet satisfaction targets to resolve customer complaints following an unprecedented rise in queries about the non-household water market, its annual review said.

The water sector watchdog failed on three of four satisfaction metrics for complaint handling, the report revealed.

The group received 11,000 complaints, a rise of 17 per cent compared to the previous year, with complaints about retailers up 45 per cent year-on-year.

Performance analyst Colin Lench at Consumer Council for Water said teething problems were part of the story as to why complaints had sharply risen since non-household customers in England were given the option to switch supplier in 2017.

“There are also issues regarding resources. After a quiet start, things picked up and retailers started to struggle to meet demand,” Lench said.

Among non-household customers more than 70 per cent of the complaints related to billing with administration making up 14 per cent and fewer operations-related complaints.

Complaints related to billing ranged from disputes on metered bills or issues with the charging structure.

Lench said the group continually looks at ways to get quicker resolutions by meeting regularly with suppliers and wholesalers and believes there needs to be improved communication across the industry to improve customer service.

The report said a “small number of retailers” in the non-household water market were responsible for the increase in volume of calls. Water Plus accounted for 21 investigations, ahead of Wave (14) and Castle Water (9).

CCWater carried out 65 formal investigations, this was twice as many as the previous year and more than half of those resulted in further action being taken on behalf of the customer.

There was also a 4 per cent increase in complaints from domestic customers about services provided by water companies.

Earlier in the year the group published satisfaction results following the retail market opening, which found customer satisfaction with water services had fallen to 87 per cent from 93 per cent in 2016.

The watchdog said the rise in complaints was “a trend which can be traced right back to the early stages of competition in England and which shows no sign of slowing.”

More than 80 per cent of enquiries were received by telephone in 2017/18, compared to only 40 per cent in the previous year. But CCWater still handled nearly 28,000 calls – up 2,000 on the previous 12 months.

The watchdog said only six out of ten customers think charges for water supply and sewerage services are fair with 40 per cent believing the charges are not fair despite nine out of ten customers reporting being satisfied with the service they receive.

To address this discrepancy CCWater has said it will offer new guidance and tips to water companies on how to bolster customers’ perceptions of fairness and value.

CCWater’s handling of complaints fell short of its own expectations because of the volume of queries it handled.

It did not meet three of its four parameters of satisfaction for aspects of complaint handling by underperforming on outcome, speed and service but exceeding its target for courtesy.

Notably the targets for resolving and closing complaints within 20 days – 76.4 per cent against a target of 80 per cent, and 40 days – 88.7 per cent against a target of 91 per cent, were not met. The corresponding satisfaction score for speed of dealing with a complaint was 66.4 per cent, well below the 80 per cent target.