Poor performers failing to get to grips with high levels of customer complaints

Households served by two of England’s water and wastewater companies are being let down by a failure to understand and deal with the causes of high levels of complaints from their customers.

Thames Water and Southern Water remain the standout poor performers in the Consumer Council for Water’s (CCW) annual household complaint-handling report. Between them the companies provide water and wastewater services to more than 20 million people.

Overall, the report shows households made 232,817 complaints to water companies in England and Wales during 2022-23, with problems relating to billing and charges accounting for almost half (47%) of these disputes.

The number of customers who sought help from CCW in resolving their complaint remained relatively stable during the year (6,197 – up 1%). But the consumer watchdog has seen a 29% rise in complaints brought to it during the first quarter of 2023-24.

The industry’s overall performance was skewed by the large number of complaints made by households to the two poorest performers. Complaints received by Southern Water were almost three times higher than the overall average for water and sewerage companies – with Thames Water’s just over one and a half times higher.

Dr Mike Keil, Chief Executive at CCW, said:

“Trust in the water sector has never been more fragile and the task of rebuilding it is made all the more challenging when companies perform as poorly as Thames Water and Southern Water.”

“We’re especially concerned that these two companies have not performed well across all the main causes for people to complain and that Thames, in particular, is compounding customers’ frustrations with delays and a failure to resolve many issues first time. Customers have a right to expect better from such an essential utility provider where switching supplier is not an option.”

CCW compared the performance of water companies on the number of complaints they received per 10,000 connections, as well as assessing how well complaints had been handled. For the first time, CCW has been able to include all complaints that water companies received, regardless of how they were made. This provides a far more complete picture of the scale of complaints but means comparisons cannot be made with previous years.

Thames Water was the only water and sewerage company to be marked as poor for both the number of complaints it received and its complaint handling. It was also the worst performing company for billing disputes and the number of complaints that could not be resolved at the first time of asking.

Southern Water was the most complained-about company with the rate of complaints per 10,000 connections almost twice as high as the next worst performer, Thames Water. It was rated worse than average for how these were handled.

Among the smaller water only companies, South East Water scored poorly for both the number of complaints it received and how these were handled. Cambridge Water also performed poorly with the company generating three times as many complaints to CCW than the previous year.

There was better news though for customers of Wessex Water, Hafren Dyfrdwy, Bristol Water and Portsmouth Water who were among the best performers.

The report highlights the importance of water companies dealing effectively with the challenges posed by climate change, with environmental factors playing a significant part in complaint levels. Complaints related to water services made up almost a third (30%) of those received by companies. These rose significantly during the summer drought of 2022, when six suppliers introduced hosepipe restrictions.

Wastewater complaints made up 22% of overall disputes, falling as a proportion due to fewer instances of extreme wet weather and flooding incidents during the winter months when these tend to rise.

CCW say they want to see the poor performing companies prioritising customer service through significant and sustained investment in their front-line teams.

CCW is also continuing to call for complaint levels to play a much stronger role in determining the rewards and penalties handed to companies as part of Ofwat’s customer service incentive.




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