Thousands of South East Water customers have faced repeat problems with their water supply. After this happened again in June, Ofwat and CCW commissioned qualitative research that found that customers felt frustrated and unsupported because South East Water did not adequately communicate how long the problems would last or pay compensation to all those affected.
Over the last year, multiple significant water supply incidents affected South East Water customers within a short period of time. A freeze-thaw event impacted many thousands of people last winter and more recently, a high demand event meant thousands experienced supply interruptions, low pressure, or being off supply during mid-June.
Our review of the freeze-thaw event found improvements were required to better protect customers in the future. For the June incident, we wanted to hear directly from customers about what they had experienced, what went well, and what improvements they would like to see. To achieve this, we included this event in a newly launched programme of incidents research for Ofwat and CCW.
Customers felt frustrated and lacked trust in the company
The research found widespread disappointment among participants about South East Water’s management of the June incident. The participants felt the company’s handling of the incident had made the experience worse for them. People felt frustrated and, in some cases, angry. There was a loss of trust in the company – particularly as participants felt that the company had not learnt lessons from previous water supply incidents. When customers were specifically asked to name what the company did well during the incident, many struggled to think of a response or answered ‘nothing’.
Communication from the company was a particular point of dissatisfaction. Participants felt the company should have been more proactive in telling people about the problems and realistic about how long the incident might go on for. Some participants were continually told the water would be restored in the next 24 hours, others were given no timeframe. This made it harder to manage than it otherwise would have been.
“We had no day-to day indication about what was going to happen.”
Participants reported feeling irritated by the tone of communication. Their impression was that the company was blaming customers (themselves) for the lack of supply, rather than taking responsibility. Further, those who had no water all week received communication from the company telling them to use less water. This felt insensitive and frustrating.
“[I] would rather they were just honest and explained the situation rather than trying to blame me.”
“There was one which said ‘use water sparingly’. A number of people got that one throughout the week, which was… like a kick in the teeth.”
Another source of dissatisfaction was the amount of support provided by South East Water during the incident. Participants did not feel there was enough alternative water to meet their needs. Water stations were chaotic and water deliveries were sporadic. Some vulnerable customers who expected to receive help didn’t get water delivered. Very few participants were contacted by the company directly with an offer of support.
“They said we weren’t a priority and basically they didn’t know when the water would come back on, and that was the end of the information.”
Participants told us that it was harder to manage as the incident went on. While people could manage for a day or so, once the incident went on for several days or longer, people needed to put in place coping strategies for hygiene and cleanliness, as well as drinking water. The research heard from people having to take drastic measures to manage without flushing toilets, including using their garden or a local forest. This had an impact on participants’ wellbeing.
“My little boy was only one…if there is no water in your house and it feels dirty, I do think it sort of like affects your mental health.”
“Lack of hygiene, lack of being able to clean my home, mental anguish as we didn’t know when the water was coming back.”
Finally, although the guaranteed standards scheme sets out what payments should be paid to customers when their water supply is interrupted, only a small number of participants reported having received a compensation payment from South East Water. Some had contacted the company to ask about compensation but had been told they weren’t entitled to it. Many of the participants had experienced multiple supply incidents over the previous year, but few were aware of their right to compensation. The company had not proactively communicated this to many of them.
Improving support for customers when something goes wrong
This research shows that South East Water needs to improve its support for customers during incidents. We will monitor the company’s future performance in this area and expect it to engage with local stakeholders. Ofwat is not satisfied with the information South East Water has provided so far and we are requiring more detail as to what went wrong and what it will do.
South East Water, and all water companies, must use the experiences of the customers who took part in the research to improve their support for customers. The research report sets out the actions that companies can take to better inform and help customers when something goes wrong, as well as what is required once an incident is over in terms of reassurance and compensation.
We are consulting on introducing a customer-focused condition into companies’ licences, to provide a clear regulatory basis in relation to how companies treat their customers, including customers in vulnerable circumstances.
Ofwat and CCW commissioned Blue Marble to undertake qualitative research with South East Water household customers who experienced water supply problems in mid-June.