Several water companies have had to revisit their policies for helping customers with affordability issues after an intervention by Ofwat.
The regulator called on these firms to rethink their approach when they resubmitted their PR 19 business plans in April.
Companies were asked to take another look at how many customers would be placed on subsidised social tariffs or review their overall pricing to ensure all customers could afford bills.
But our experience has found that policy reforms are only part of the answer. What really counts for people struggling to pay is the interaction they have with the water companies.
Qa has undertaken research with such customers for water companies. They struggled to pay their bills for many different reasons – some relied on benefits or low paid irregular work, others suffered physical or mental health problems.
Another variable was the severity of the problem. Some householders manage to catch up quickly and repay within a week or two. Others began to accumulate more serious arrears.
A smaller number end up in thousands of pounds worth of debt – a situation that can prove impossible for the customer and the water company to retrieve.
Our research found that it was crucial that companies intervened early to help customers and prevent their debts spiralling out of control.
Communication is key
There are a number of ways the water companies can do this.
- Text messages – sent the day after a missed payment, the tone should be a gentle reminder – friendly yet stressing the need for action. It should include details of how the customer can obtain support if they need it
- An offer of a telephone call to discuss their circumstances, in which the caller shows empathy and guides the customer to potential solutions
- An early offer of flexible payments, including the chance to spread repayments over a longer period of time
- A follow-up call to establish the extent to which the customer expects their circumstances to change and how this might affect their ability to pay.
These techniques can help water companies prevent financially vulnerable customers sliding into unassailable debt – and might even enable them to get back on track with other household bills.
Core topic areas have focused on Attitudes to River Water Quality, Improving Bathing Water Quality, Evaluating Behaviour Change Campaigns (water saving initiatives and sewer blockage prevention), Testing New Billing Concepts and Designs, Evaluating Behaviours During Water Supply Interruption, Online Tool Development for Willingness to Pay Surveying and much more.Find out more about the work we’ve done within the water sector by contacting Richard Bryan on firstname.lastname@example.org
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