A Southern Water boss has defended the company’s performance after it was flagged up by a consumer watchdog.
Strategy director Simon Oates said that the company wanted to reassure customers that it was committed to “bringing our performance up to the standard they quite rightly expect from us”.
His remarks followed a report by the Consumer Council for Water. The watchdog said: “Southern Water remained the industry’s worst overall performer for the fourth successive year after more than a 10 per cent rise in written customer complaints during 2015-16.”
Mr Oates said: “Our performance since November 2015 – most of which unfortunately falls outside the time period covered by today’s report – has been much improved.
“We have seen the number of complaints we receive from customers fall steadily and, so far this year, we have received approximately half the number of complaints we did in the first five months of 2015.
“We want to reassure our customers we remain fully committed to continuing the improvements we have already made, and bringing our performance up to the standard they quite rightly expect from us.”
The watchdog said that it had asked Southern to explain by the end of next month “what steps they have taken or are planning to take to drive down complaints”.
It said: “For the fourth consecutive year Southern was the worst performing company. At over 77 complaints per 10,000 connections this level of complaint remains more than twice the industry average and the gap between Southern and the rest of the industry is widening.
“The company has a lot of work to do to close that gap. We expect the company to do so.”
The report said that it has asked four companies, including Southern, for an interim report covering the first six months of 2016-17 highlighting
- monthly complaints in five categories – billing and charges, water service, sewerage service, metering and other complaints
- explanations for significant month-on-month increases or decreases in complaint numbers
- the actions taken or planned to reduce complaint numbers
- company expectations of complaint numbers for the 2016-17 year – to the end of next March – in each of the five categories
The report also said that, as well as the request for an interim report, “we will continue to raise complaint issues in our regular meetings … and press them to ensure this does not mark the start of an upward trend in customer complaints”.
It added: “We will be expecting significant improvement in the coming year. In particular, we will be putting additional pressure on Southern and expect it to bring its performance into line with the rest of the industry quickly.
“We are very concerned about Southern’s performance. Over four consecutive years the company has been the worst performer for complaints per 10,000 connections and in 2015-16 had more complaints than the previous year, widening the gap with the rest of the industry.
“It was also the worst performer in relation to the number of complaints the Consumer Council for Water received against companies during the year.
“The company’s universal metering programme and various systems issues have contributed to its situation.
“We have met the company regularly to discuss its problems and plans to address the underlying reasons for high complaint levels.
“The company’s lack of improvement is therefore disappointing. Our strong criticism of Southern in last year’s report has not yet prompted the improvement in results we sought.
“We therefore feel it is necessary to place greater pressure on the company to turn its situation around.”
The watchdog noted: “More issues can arise from a metered supply, including higher than expected bills, leakage, company failure to read a meter, or disputes about the various charges. As a result, figures show metered customers are more likely to complain.”
Southern has installed meters at almost all homes and businesses in Brighton and Hove and the watchdog’s figures show that most complaints were about billing and charges.
The company was one of just three out of ten water and sewerage companies to receive fewer complaints from business customers. Those customers will be able to choose which provider bills them from next April.
Southern said: “The number of complaints received about the company’s water services are among the lowest in the industry. However, billing complaints pushed the business into the bottom spot overall.
“In contrast, 2015-16 was Southern Water’s best ever year in terms of operational performance. The company continued to lead the industry in health and safety, leakage and drinking water quality – all while making improvements in other areas.
“For example, there has been a significant drop in the number of sewer flooding and pollution incidents across its region.
“We are pleased to have the opportunity to report back to the Consumer Council for Water next month and are confident the figures we submit will show a marked reduction in the number of complaints we have received.
“Improvements we have already made include
- improving our digital service and online options, enabling customers to communicate with us through Twitter, Facebook and online chat
- introducing of a range of new tariffs designed to help people manage their bills
- rolling out a programme of water efficiency visits to customers to help them reduce how much water they use, along with their bills
- supporting debt prevention work through partnerships with local authorities, such as Brighton and Hove City Council and the Consumer Council for Water
- improving the way in which we collect money owed to us and lengthening the time over which it can be repaid in order to avoid large hikes in customers’ direct debit payments
- speeding up our refund process so when we owe customers money they get it back more quickly
- being more responsive to customers through the introduction of a new feedback facility – ‘Rant and Rave’ – which enables people to provide real-time feedback
“A further number of initiatives will also be going live shortly, including
- providing customers with monthly consumption alerts, allowing them to keep track of their water use
- launching redesigned bills so it is easier for customers to understand what their money is being spent on
- introducing e-billing for customers who want to move away from paper bills
“According to the report, the largest proportion of complaints were made about high bills and large changes to bills.
“Between 2010 and 2015 Southern Water carried out a universal metering programme which meant around 400,000 customers changed from a rateable value bill to a bill based on the amount of water that is used.
“While overall more than 60 per cent of customers saw their bills reduce, the metering programme means customer bills are now subject to much greater variation.
“Southern Water is addressing this by putting in place a dedicated call centre which is focused on identifying customers who have seen a significant increase and proactively contacting them before the bill is sent to talk through the reasons for this.”
To read the full Consumer Council for Water, click here.