Water firms rapped for billing and service problems
Four water companies have been warned to curb a sharp rise in complaints from customers after problems with bills and disruption to services.
More than two million calls were made to water companies across England and Wales in 2018/19 to resolve problems with the essential services they provide, according to the Consumer Council for Water's (CCWater) annual complaints report.
CCWater is now demanding an urgent improvement from Essex & Suffolk Water, Hafren Dyfrdwy, Northumbrian Water and Thames Water, whose performances it says have caused the greatest concern. All four of these companies have been asked to provide the watchdog with quarterly reports highlighting what action they have already taken and what else they plan to do to reduce complaints.
Almost half of customers' grievances related to problems with their bill or charges, but there was also a rise in complaints about water supply and pressure.
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Which companies were the worst performers?
Thames Water received the most complaints about its water supply across 2018/19. It experienced a 24% rise in written complaints, with a further 10% of customers having to pick up the phone to resolve an issue with their service.
Problems with the rollout of a new billing system were the main cause of a spike in calls and written complaints to Northumbrian Water and Essex & Suffolk Water, which are part of the same company. The changes meant customers encountered longer waiting times or saw their calls abandoned, leading to a 64% rise in written complaints to Northumbrian Water, while Essex & Suffolk's more than doubled.
Difficulties caused by a new bill layout and changes to charges were largely to blame for Hafren Dyfrdwy – which serves customers in Wales – seeing a 154% rise in written complaints during its transition from Dee Valley Water, following a takeover by Severn Trent Water.
What does CCWater say?
Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said: "Far too many customers are having to waste their time and suffer the frustration of disputing unclear or inaccurate bills.
"In the autumn we'll be bringing the whole industry together to try and improve the standards of billing, as well as demanding a significant fall in the complaints made to the four poor performers named in our report."
Thames Water customer experience director Kelly Macfarlane said: "We're introducing an industry-leading billing and account management system, are putting more than 2,000 employees through specialist training and are investing in a new website which will be easier for customers to navigate and use.
"These improvements will create the right foundations for us to meet our customers' needs and expectations, whether they are contacting us or self-serving online, and to achieve the targets we have set ourselves of significantly reducing complaints this year and beyond."
Claire Sharp, customer director for Northumbrian Water, said: "The figures are disappointing, however we are confident these results reflect a very temporary setback while we've implemented new systems."
A Hafren Dyfrdwy spokesperson said: "Hafren Dyfrdwy is a new company that's been in existence for around a year, and we're aware there have been some issues for customers as we've brought in new systems and processes. We'd like to apologise to everyone whose been affected by these changes, and assure them we're confident they'll see a much stronger performance now and in years to come."
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