A Sussex-based water company has topped the list of complaints across the industry for the fifth straight year.
Southern Water, which is based in Durrington and also provides wastewater treatment services across the county, remains the worst overall performer in England and Wales despite a 45 per cent drop in the number of written complaints during 2016/17.
According to the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater), Southern had more than 42 complaints per 10,000 connections, down from around 77 in 2015/16.
However the number of telephone calls deemed to be ‘unwanted contacts’, which are not exclusively complaints, increased by 54 per cent last year.
The CCWater’s report released today (Wednesday September 20) acknowledges this increase was due to Southern reviewing its internal recording processes over the past year, following a full overhaul of its customer service systems.
Meanwhile South East Water, which supplies water to most of Mid Sussex, the Lewes and Wealden districts, Eastbourne, and Bexhill, reported a 30 per cent reduction in written complaints, and an 19 per cent drop in unwanted contacts.
Portsmouth Water, which covers the Chichester and Bognor Regis areas, has one of the lowest rates, but saw written complaints rise by 52 per cent, with unwanted contacts down five per cent.
Thames Water, which covers Crawley, saw written complaints increase by 23 per cent, with unwanted contacts up by 2.5 per cent.
Simon Oates, chief customer officer at Southern Water, said: “I am pleased we are the most improved company across the industry in terms of achieving the largest reduction in written complaints.
“Despite this 45 per cent reduction we are still at the foot of the industry league tables, so we’ll continue to work closely with our colleagues at CCW to drive forward further improvements and move up the rankings.
“Our teams have worked so hard over the last year and we are all committed to continuing to improve responsiveness and focus more on meeting the individual needs of our customers.
“We’ve carried out a thorough review to ensure we can make it easier to do business with us - whether it’s online, face-to-face or over the phone. This includes making significant improvements to our website and customer contact centre.
“We want to reassure our customers we’re building on the significant improvements we have already made, and bringing our performance up to the standard they quite rightly expect from us.”
Unwanted contacts are the number of phone contacts received from customers that are ‘unwanted’ from the customer’s point of view.
These includes contacts about events or actions or repeat or chase calls by the customer to the company.
Written complaints decreased from 15,797 in 2015/16 to 8,773 in 2016/17.
But unwanted contacts rose from 143,224 to 220,306 last year, equating to 1,125 per 10,000 connected properties.
According to the CCWater report: “During the year, the company improved its digital communication channels and made a series of changes to its billing and debt prevention processes.
“This included establishing a dedicated customer service team to contact customers most likely to see increases in metered bills, to check whether this was attributable to a leak on the customer’s supply pipe or a change in household size, and to offer water efficiency advice.
“However, as mentioned above, the company’s performance on unwanted contacts was very poor.”
Improvements made by Southern Water include a new online services portal, a dedicated team proactively contacting customers most likely to see increases in metered bills to check if this is down to a leak or changes in household size, improved and increased use of digital communication channels, a programme of water efficiency visits, and work with partner organisations to improve contact with the most vulnerable customers.
Sir Tony Redmond, London and South East chair for CCWater, said: “We are encouraged by Southern’s improvement but its performance remains poor in comparison to the rest of the industry.
“There is a lot more work to be done by the company.”
Southern Water provides both water and wastewater treatment services to the Horsham district, Adur, Worthing, Littlehampton, Hastings, Brighton and Hove, Lewes, and parts of Rother and Chichester districts.
Sir Tony added: “We’ve been very impressed with the way South East Water has transformed itself into one of the better performing water companies. It’s a testament to the company’s commitment to try and get things right first time for customers, which is what we expect from the whole industry.”
Steve George, customer services director for South East Water, said: “We know just how much our customers depend on their water supply and it is our top priority to ensure that this confidence is maintained.
“We are therefore really pleased that our continued success in improving our customer experience has again been reflected in CCWater’s annual report. Our work is on-going to make our customer experience as smooth and positive as it can be.
“The company’s online My Account service has been a great success with more than 50,000 customers now managing their water accounts via southeastwater.co.uk, viewing and paying their bills at any time of the day or night.
“We will continue to engage with customer and community groups to ensure we carry on delivering a five-star service for all.”
For more information visit www.southernwater.co.uk or www.ccwater.org.uk