Great examples of customer support

Below you can find some great examples of water companies quickly adapting to changing circumstances and stepping up to support customers.

Jump to the key themes of the conversation:

Also find out other ways that water companies are helping customers and what’s happening next with the conversation.

Financial vulnerability:

Three people walking on a beach with the text "Our research found 1 in 3 people struggled to pay their bills at least sometimes in the past year

Sarah’s experience after being furloughed

Sarah* called South Staffordshire Water to explain that she’d been furloughed and she was unsure when she would return to work. She is a single mother and money was so tight that she was having to use a local food bank and she had no money to top up her energy prepayment meter. Sarah also explained that she had an autistic daughter, who suffers with other medical issues.

South Staffordshire Water helped Sarah by registering her on their priority services register, putting her on their social tariff and also gave her a fuel voucher.

Sarah said: “I didn’t realise that South Staffs Water could help in this way, thank you so much.”

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Increasing a social tariff’s scale and scope

United Utilities changed the scale and scope of their social tariff allowing them to support more customers whose income has been affected by COVID19.

As a result, they were able to support an additional 45,000 customers who were financially impacted by the pandemic, reducing their water bill to an affordable amount. This year they’ve helped 115% more customers to get lower bills, when compared to the same period in 2019.

United Utilities have promoted the new support directly to customers and via partner organisations and the Hardship Hub – a website that provides expert advice to people struggling with debt, to increase overall awareness.

Helping customers with extra debt support

South East Water has become a referral partner for the government sponsored Money Adviser Network (MAN). The scheme means that any South East Water customers with debt issues can be quickly signposted to a single contact point which offers free, regulated debt advice and financial support. Since joining the scheme, South East Water have been able to direct a number of customers towards help with managing their financial wellbeing.

Identifying ‘at risk customers’

Following compulsory water metering installations, Southern Water proactively identified 10% of customers who were likely to find the move to metering unaffordable and offered them a package of support. In some instances, they also offered a capped tariff to help address the issues.

Southern Water also worked alongside a social enterprise to help customers recognise if they were entitled to claim certain benefits. They helped more than 3,000 customers secure a total of around £3.7m unclaimed benefits and tax credits – an average of £1200 per customer.

Adapting support to help those affected by the pandemic

Due to loss of income directly due to COVID-19, some customers have found themselves struggling to pay their water bills for the first time. These customers wouldn’t necessarily be eligible for help using Wessex Water’s social tariff due to the eligibility requirements.

Recognising this was a problem for their customers, Wessex Water worked with debt partners and expert advisors to develop COVID-19 Assist, a 6-month social tariff designed specifically for this group. After this time, Wessex Water will work with these customers to check their eligibility for their standard social tariff. COVID-19 Assist will help this group of customers get back on track, retain a habit of paying, avoid building up any unnecessary debt and aids them seek help from debt advice partners.

Paul’s challenge after cut to working hours

Paul* told South Staffordshire Water that, due to the pandemic, his working hours had been cut and he hadn’t had any work for several months. He was struggling to pay his bills, especially with four children in the household.

South Staffordshire Water checked his water account and found that he had been overpaying and was £135 in credit. Paul qualified for the social tariff and they applied the reduction on the same day. This resulted in a credit on his account of over £200 which was paid straight back into his bank account. South Staffordshire Water also gave him a £30 fuel voucher and a further £49 voucher the following month.

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Offering a range of support

During the pandemic, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water put in place more support for customers. This included payment holidays for around 8,000 households who were struggling to pay bills. Welsh Water also added 340,000 customers who had to shield temporarily to their priority services register, to ensure that they would receive help if there was a problem.

Recognising that the issues with the pandemic would be around for some time, Welsh Water also redesigned their social tariff so that they could support an additional 70,000 people to get lower bills over the next two years. They worked with partners across their area, such as Citizens Advice, housing associations and local authorities, to ensure this support reached those who needed it most.

Locally, Welsh Water also donated £106,000 to support 106 food banks across their area.

Discount for low-income pensioners

Although pensioners have been protected financially throughout the pandemic, many have still been impacted significantly due to shielding or lack of partner agency support. One of Wessex Water’s schemes gives low-income pensioners, who just about manage their finances, a discount of 20% on their water bills. Customers must be in receipt of pension credit or state pension is their sole income.

Wessex Water wanted to make sure their support schemes remained as accessible as possible for them. They commissioned research with eligible pensioners who had not taken up the discount and several charity partner organisations. Following this research, Wessex Water made several improvements to the scheme to ensure it was as easy as possible for this group to access.

Ensuring customers are correctly charged for their water

A new data share project in Kent has enabled South East Water to easily identify customers who are eligible for a social tariff. The data share project with Maidstone Borough Council matches data available to the local authority with account details held by South East Water. South East Water are then able to identify those customers who are eligible for the social tariff, where their water and sewerage bills are capped. Customers are automatically transferred to the social tariff without a need to apply. As not all customers on a low income seek support and advice, this system will make sure those who meet the criteria are on the correct tariff.

Customers’ mental wellbeing:

Pandemic has an impact on customers wellbeing and mental health graphic

Mark’s job loss after epilepsy diagnosis

Mark* called Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water as he had recently lost his job after being diagnosed with epilepsy. The advisor he was speaking to recognised that he was vulnerable and transferred him through to the specialist support team.

Mark was obviously distressed by his situation and expressed how he didn’t know much about the illness. He told them: “I don’t even know where to start”.

After looking at his circumstances, the support team advisor, Jody, helped Mark apply for their social tariff, reducing his charges and added him to their priority services register. They worked with Mark to set up a payment plan that was manageable for the next few months and check in with him in after three months.

Jody had not long received epilepsy awareness training, so she was also able to confidently signpost him to Epilepsy Action and he was so grateful for this.

Jody said “I felt that day that I had really helped this customer. I could tell he genuinely wanted and needed that support and guidance so desperately. A real feel-good factor for me as an advisor!”

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Josh is helped to get back on track

Josh* suffers from anxiety and struggles to speak to people on the phone. He had ignored his water bill from Affinity Water for two years but wanted to get back on track.

Affinity Water worked with Josh to agree an affordable payment plan to give Josh breathing space until his finances improved, and were able to arrange independent debt advice, from National Debtline and other charities.

Affinity Water arranged a free home visit to see how Josh could cut his water usage to reduce future bills and set up an online account so that Josh could easily make payments, check his balance or set up a direct debit at his convenience. He was also added to the priority services register.

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Working with vulnerable customers

Within Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water’s contact centre, they have established a team of specialist support advisors who are trained to deal with customers in vulnerable circumstances. It’s important that these advisors can identify and respond to the needs of all their customers, so to support them they hold monthly awareness sessions with organisations such as Mind, Step Change, Citizens Advice, Epilepsy Action. Through these sessions, the team can see what support best suits each customers’ circumstances.

Jakub supported by community hub

Jakub* is a regular customer of the South Staffordshire Water community hub, as he often visits to get foodbank vouchers. But during the pandemic, his mental health deteriorated. Jakub has no family locally and no support. One day he simply sat and spoke to the community hub adviser and was grateful for a conversation with somebody. In addition, through the conversation, South Staffordshire Water were able to refer him to other agencies for ongoing support.

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Information inequality:

A graphic showing 8 ways companies can improve outcomes for customers

Carrie is helped to navigate support

Carrie* was introduced to Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water by a third party. She was in significant financial difficulty and had built up large debts. She qualified for Welsh Water’s social tariff, which would help with her lower bills. However, because she was a homeowner, she wasn’t initially eligible for their debt assistance scheme.

When Welsh Water spoke to her, they found out that her home was in a state of disrepair, which was adding to the difficulties she was facing. Once they understood this, they used their discretion to accept her onto the scheme, which means that if she can stick to her social tariff payments for 12 months, she will be debt free.

*name changed to protect the identity of the customer

Understanding vulnerable customers

Thames Water has taken part in new research to help vulnerable customers with poor numeracy skills, to better understand their water bills. The Plain Numbers project aims to simplify customer communications to support people who struggle with numbers. Thames Water is now using the findings as part of its ongoing work to improve its customer billing experience and services.

Changing processes to encourage engagement

During lockdown, personal visits for affordability assessments for United Utilities customers had to be postponed. In the interim, they replaced visits with postcards and digital messaging encouraging customers to get in touch. Post lockdown, United Utilities are now operating a combination of a face-to-face initial doorstep introductions and then a telephony assessment; continuing to take their support directly to customers’ doors.

Promoting awareness of help available

Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water have a small community-based team that works with organisations such as Job Centre Plus, local authorities and Citizens Advice to raise awareness of their tariffs and deal with the more complex requests for help from those customers that are reluctant to engage with them directly. By dealing with customers and their representatives face-to-face, they can better understand their situation and determine what support is most appropriate.

Communicating with vulnerable customers

With many people struggling due to the pandemic, Affinity Water wanted to accurately identify those who may be struggling to afford their water bill and proactively communicate the support they could give. Following their efforts, 4,000 more customers successfully applied for their social tariff between February-April 2021.

Other ways that water companies are helping customers:

How customers are feeling day to day graphic

Funding for communities

A dedicated funding scheme for projects across the Wessex Water region will provide at least half a million pounds of funding every year to support community projects, debt advice and charities dealing with those suffering the consequences of poverty through poor mental and physical health, hunger, housing problems or unemployment. The Wessex Water Foundation will prioritise those worst affected by the pandemic in the region.

Providing employability training

Severn Trent will be providing 100,000 hours of free employability training over the next two years to support the region’s recovery following Covid-19. They have committed to taking on 500 young people at risk of long-term unemployment, on six-month work placements to support them back into work.

Severn Trent will also be delivering 100,000 hours of community training to support communities and their circumstances.

United Utilities Trust fund

United Utilities annually donate £3.5m to the United Utilities Trust fund (UUTF) which supports customers in financial difficulty with grants towards payment of their water bill and the purchase of white goods. In addition to traditional grant awards, the UUTF has been awarding grants to customers who have been impacted financially as a result of COVID-19.

Customer research

United Utilities commissioned some COVID-19 research with their customer opinion panel Water Talk, to understand what is key for their customers during this time and how the pandemic has impacted attitudes and behaviour. As part of this research, they’ve seen that awareness of their support schemes has increased over the last year since they last ran the research – up from 25% in April 2020 to 40% this year.

Partnership working to support vulnerable customers

Affinity Water and UK Power Networks are working in partnership to share information with households in their combined supply area, on help and financial support that is available. Information was shared via an email to over 7000 households currently on Affinity Water priority services register (PSR) to promote further help with energy advice through ‘Connect for Help’. This is free service that helps people reduce their energy bills, stay warm and access the local help available to them.