London, U.K. --- (METERING.COM) --- November 16, 2007 - Most water and sewerage companies in England and Wales have continued to deliver the high standards of service that customers expected in the past year, but a few have fallen short, says the water regulatory authority Ofwat in its “Levels of Service” report, published yesterday.

When dealing with customers in writing and by telephone in general, the companies continued to deliver a ‘good’ level of service, with 99 percent of contacts about billing dealt with within five days and 98 percent of written complaints answered in ten days. This good level of service was confirmed by an independent survey of about 9,000 customers who had contacted their water company by telephone, which showed that the majority were satisfied with the way their telephone calls were handled.

There were, however, problems at South East, Southern and Severn Trent. In February 2006, South East introduced a new system to improve billing and dealing with customers’ billing enquiries. Problems with the new system had a severe detrimental impact on customers, with services disrupted for most of the year, bills delayed and the company struggled to handle the resulting increase in billing contacts and complaints. However, the company’s performance has been satisfactory since May 2007 and ‘good’ performance is expected to be restored by the end of the year.

In the case of Southern the company had reported significant problems with customer service in October 2005. A subsequent investigation by Ofwat resulted in Southern being required to set out a plan for improvement and to report monthly on progress. Southern introduced a new customer billing system in February 2007, which was intended to improve service, but response times to both written and telephone contacts slowed up considerably while staff got used to the new system, resulting in a large backlog and increasing complaints from customers. Southern has now increased staffing and has nearly cleared the backlog.

Similarly, Severn Trent, after reporting significant problems with customer service in April 2006, was required to set out a plan for improvement and report quarterly on progress. During the past year the company started on a program of work to improve service, and performance is continuing to improve in line with the improvement plan, which aims to restore acceptable service by the end of 2007-08.

In addition United Utilities reported that for about a month, some of its customers’ complaint letters were not being answered properly. However, it resolved the problem and has put in new procedures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

The problems at South East, Southern and Severn Trent impacted on overall industry performance this year, with the total number of written complaints to the companies increasing to 8 per 1,000 customers, up from about 6 per 1,000 the previous year. Excluding the performance of these three companies the complaint rate is 6.5 per 1,000, with many companies receiving fewer written complaints than in previous years.

From information supplied by the water companies about 45 percent of the complaints were about billing and charges, while 16 percent were about water services.

Ofwat director of consumer protection, Andrew Dunn said: "Customers are reaping the benefits of regulatory pressure brought by Ofwat and the actions of the companies over many years. We expect these high standards to be maintained and will not shy away from taking appropriate action where they are not."