Tackling the root causes of complaints about bills and debt could help transform consumers’ views of the water industry, according to a new report. CCW – the voice for water consumers – is launching a fresh bid to help the industry get to grips with billing complaints, which continue to cause enormous frustration for thousands of household customers across England and Wales.

The report ‘Getting the measure of billing and debt complaints’ sets out some of the simple steps that the industry can take to reduce disputes over bills and debt recovery, which make up about half of the complaints made to water companies. It also highlights examples of good and bad practice, including case studies CCW has helped to resolve.

Building a stronger relationship with customers, taking more frequent meter readings and gaining a better understanding of each bill-payer’s individual circumstances are just some of the recommendations highlighted in the report.

It’s hoped the findings will inspire companies to develop ideas and agree to take action ahead of an industry-wide billing complaints workshop being hosted by CCW next month. The event will kick-start a campaign by the consumer group to reduce the number of complaints about bills.

CCW says getting to grips with customers’ concerns on this issue may hold the key to changing people’s perceptions over fairness and value for money. Only six out of ten households currently think they get a fair deal from their water company.1

Carl Pegg, Head of Consumer Relations for CCW, said “The industry has taken significant strides in reducing complaints over the past decade but disputes over bills and debt continue to cause many customers anxiety and frustration.”

“Getting the basics right with bills is essential but companies also need to invest more time and resources in getting to know and understand their customers and the individual challenges they face.”

CCW has been instrumental in helping the water industry reduce complaints by about 70 per cent since their peak in 2007-08. However, over the last four years the consumer group has seen a steady rise in the number of metered households disputing the accuracy of their bills or how much water they have used.

Disputed liability of metered bills is the single biggest cause of complaint to CCW but the consumer group believes many of these clashes could be avoided if water companies took the right proactive steps.

These measures include flagging up unexpected increases in consumption with a customer before sending them the final bill, while offering them help managing their water use or putting in place a payment plan. Companies should also consider reading meters more frequently to identify potential problems at an earlier stage.

Over the past decade debt recovery has also consistently featured in the top three reasons why customers are forced to turn to CCW for help with a complaint. Too often companies miss an opportunity to help a struggling customer by starting the debt recovery process without fully understanding the individual’s circumstances.

The report recommends companies try different methods of contact to reach out to households in debt, rather than repeatedly sending out texts or sending reminder letters. They should also seize the opportunity to remind cash-strapped customers on unmetered bills of the potential benefits of switching to a meter.

Better communication would also help companies to identify customers that are in danger of struggling to pay and position the supplier as a source of help during their financial troubles.