As part of our role as the independent Customer Challenge Group (CCG) for Northumbrian Water Limited’s two operating areas, the Water Forum has the opportunity to review the performance of the company against the areas that customers have said are important to them – the performance commitments (PCs) and output delivery incentives (ODIs).
Where there are fluctuations in performance over time, in either direction, we seek to understand why these are and what the company is doing to either address issues or sustain improvements. Financial scrutiny doesn’t fall within our remit.
Customer satisfaction was once again very high throughout the year, and looking ahead, we believe that continued engagement with customers throughout what is a period of deep uncertainty – as a result of both Covid-19 and the CMA process that is underway – will be vital in sustaining such high levels.
We are pleased to note improvements in some of the areas we challenged the company on in last year’s Annual Performance Report:
- Sewer flooding and customer behaviour: although susceptible to storm events, sewer flooding is also caused by flushing wet wipes, period products and other items down toilets. NWL strengthened its ‘Bin the Wipe’ message and trialled three innovative pilot projects to encourage customer behaviour change – if proven successful, these are positive steps that should contribute to fewer households suffering from highly unpleasant sewer flooding.
- Interruptions to supply: having urged NWL to learn from large supply interruption events and take proactive steps to reduce response times, we are pleased to note the improvement from an average 9.5 minutes to 6 minutes. By reacting to the very first call that is received about a mains burst, and finding sometimes innovative methods of quickly reinstating a supply of water, customers are getting better service from their water company.
- Taste and odour: we challenged NWL to review the way it communicates about blending water, acknowledging that small variations to ‘their normal’ are easily detected by customers. The company rose to this challenge, holding sprint events with staff and other organisations to understand the issue more deeply, and proactively informing and reassuring customers whose water will be affected by upcoming work. This has given fewer customers cause to complain about taste and odour.
Leakage performance continued to improve this year, which is positive news for customers. As well as good asset maintenance, pressure management is a contributory factor here, and we will keep a keen eye on this area to ensure this doesn’t cause any problems, as the company balances potential increases in household demand due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation.
The new customer billing system has bedded in further over the last year, and as well as adding resource into the team to handle customer contact, we are pleased that customers can now get in touch and manage their accounts using alternative means such as Messenger. The system has clearly been an enabler of home-working, such that the transition appeared virtually seamless from a customer perspective; and the data it holds has helped identify those customers who may need financial support as a result of Covid-19.
Looking ahead to next year, we would like to see a continued focus on the following areas, to raise performance levels even higher for customers:
- Customer complaints: Although by April 2020 the levels of customer service (call response time, dropped calls) returned to where they were at before the new system arrived, NWL’s aim must remain to minimise the reasons for customers to get in touch in the first place.
- Bathing water quality: we are aware that the company and its partners are endeavouring to get to the root cause of the issues at Cullercoats Bay, which has not met the minimum standard.
- Drinking water quality: we will keep a focus on this area through our sub-group working with the company. Engagement with the Drinking Water Inspectorate will be important; as will communication with customers about performance against the new CRI measure.
- Bin the Wipe campaign: the work done this year presents a great opportunity for further development in the next 12 months, and we look forward to seeing plans for a broader roll-out of those pilot projects that are deemed a success, in order to drive further reduction in sewer flooding of houses and spills from combined sewer overflows into rivers
We are mindful that for the company and its customers, what the next year has in store is uncertain; but from our interactions with the Leadership Team, we are confident that the all-important culture of responding to and learning from problems is in place. We therefore look forward to continued improvements being delivered for customers in 2020-21; and will continue to fulfil our role of providing independent challenge, insights and expertise.
Water Forum Chair