The water watchdog’s latest annual Water Matters survey shows that while nine out of ten customers are satisfied with their water and sewerage services, only six in ten agree that their charges are fair – a figure that has remained static for seven years. Perceptions of fairness are strongly influenced by customer experience, according to Water Matters. Those customers who think charges are unfair are more likely to have made contact with their water company in the past 12 months, and are also less likely to recommend their water company or believe the company cares. Negative perceptions of fairness can also have an underlying effect on satisfaction in other areas such as value for money so, by addressing this, water companies can make positive progress towards improving wider customer perceptions.
Mike Keil, CCWater’s head of policy and research, said that by failing to address these long-term trends, water companies are risking increasing levels of customer discontent. "Customers’ perceptions of fairness and value for money have remained disappointingly static for seven years, and it’s no surprise that the water sector is now coming under increased scrutiny," he said. "Just this year, service interruptions caused by March’s 'Beast from the East' and the current spell of dry weather have led to frustration among customers. Unless water companies take action now, it’s unlikely that we will see a reversal of this trend anytime soon."
Keeping customers informed year-round – and not just when problems occur – is a key way in which water companies can develop positive relationships with customers and improve their perceptions. Providing clear and accessible information about the issues customers care about – such as how their bills are funding resilient supply networks and reducing leakage – can help to increase customers’ trust in their supplier, and while improvement is needed across the industry, some water companies have proven that it can be done.
Over the past seven years, customers’ views on the fairness of charges have improved for three companies: Welsh Water, South West Water and Wessex Water. However, while these improvements show that customer perceptions of fairness can be changed for the better, the failure of the industry as a whole to address the long-term issue also shows that more work needs to be done.
CCWater is urging water companies to be more than ‘silent providers’, challenging mediocre performance and making every contact count positively with their customers. Keil also said that affordability is a key factor influencing customers’ perceptions of fairness. He added: “While all companies now offer social tariffs to customers in financial difficulty, we think that there is an opportunity for companies to do a lot more in this area, for example by expanding these schemes and contributing more towards them.
“What’s clear is that every contact made is an opportunity for water companies to increase trust and change customer attitudes by providing a positive experience.” Responding to the report, Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: "Thanks to £150 billion of investment by water companies since the 1990s, customer satisfaction with water and sewerage services remains very high. "However, we fully recognise that there is still more to do on other issues. Average bills are currently around £1 a day and have remained roughly the same for the last 20 years in real terms; while six out of ten people see that as good value for money, we are determined to improve on that."