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Posted: 06/01/17

Reflections from the first Open Water Customer Stakeholder Workshop

We held our first customer stakeholder workshop in early December, held in partnership with the Consumer Council for Water.

More than forty people representing organisations such as the National Farmers Union, The British Chambers of Commerce, the Horticultural Trades Association, the National Housing Federation, Food and Drink Federation, Crown Commercial Service and NHS Property Services – to name but a few – heard about the market and the importance of customer awareness of what will be the largest market of its kind worldwide.

Delegates heard that the water companies have worked hard for their part in setting up the market – pragmatic and playing an active role. There are now more than 2 million supply points registered on the new central data system – which relate to over 1.2 million business customers charities and public sector organisations which could be eligible to switch to a new retailer from April 2017.

‘Customers need to negotiate better deals….’

Richard Emmett and Tony Smith from CC Water said they want to see customers negotiate a better deal with their existing company or switch to one that does. This was a theme picked up by an Hotelier from Cambridgeshire who said he will have to balance cost of his time to look at options against the savings he could get from a better deal. He said he is keen to get the best tariff he can and also wants better customer service and advice on improving water efficiency.

Licensed retailers

Businesses could switch to one of the 15 companies currently licensed to provide water retail services from April and Adam Cooper, Director for Retail Market Opening at Ofwat said he expected more licenses to be awarded as the market matured. He said he also expected greater innovation to emerge in the new competitive environment.

Richard Hudson from the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation then talked about customers getting the market they want and how they can influence that. He felt that data accuracy, better billing and long term cost savings were important as well as businesses of all sizes getting support from Ofwat and CC Water with such things as protracted issues with billing.

Protecting Customers

Protection for the customer is an important aspect of the new market and so it was a good time to talk about the protections that will be in place; for example, back-billing limited to 16 months and continuity of service if a retailer either goes out of business or a water company chooses to opt out of the retail market. These are just two elements of Ofwat’s Customer Protection Code of Practice.

“No change is not a choice.”

This was the view of sector commentator, Karma Loveday, editor of The Water Report. She spoke about the fact that customers currently have no choice but, from April, business customers will have quite a few. They can do nothing or negotiate a better deal with their existing supplier. She believes that to be informed about the market and about choice means a customer can turn the change to their advantage rather than just letting it happen.

She talked frankly about potential customer concerns on the quality and accuracy of data being held on the central system which in turn may lead to billing issues. She went on to talk about the need to ensure that problems would be quickly resolved and that customers can feel confident about switching. She sounded a warning note about customers being diligent in their research when considering using a Third Party Intermediary or agent to find them the best deal.

Do customers know what’s happening?

No, not really, according to a national survey currently being undertaken on behalf of Ofwat. Darren Ivey from Opinion Research Services told the audience that although the survey has yet to conclude, early findings indicate a low level of awareness. Many of those contacted so far say they understand very little about how the market will actually work. Few can recall any communication from their water company and the majority are very unsure about eligibility. Their views on whether or not to switch are influenced by their experiences of switching energy and bank accounts and they are worried about what protections are in place for them if they switch but end up dissatisfied.

What did the audience want to know?

This short video captures the highlights of the day and some of the questions that the audience had.

Q: What will happen to trade effluent discharge consents as these are currently from wholesalers?

A: Nothing will change if customer does not want it to. As a customer it’s down to you. The infrastructure – the pipes and systems which take away your trade waste won’t change and if you don’t change retailer, then the status quo remains. If you switch retailers, you may be offered improvements to how your waste is managed, the cost and innovation around recycling and re-use of wastewater.

Q: Farms can be classed as domestic as well as commercial use, so will there be consistency applied in approaches across the country?

A: Farms will be treated as business customers unless they can prove otherwise to Ofwat and they can go to Ofwat for a determination if they are unsure or disagree with the category given to them by their water company. CC Water is also looking at this issue as it could be relevant when for example, flats are developed above a shop. Direct to eligibility tool on Open Water website

Q: What is meant by innovation in the market?

A: Accurate billing and options and flexibility on frequency and methods of payments will represent innovation for the sector. Companies should also be helping their customers with full water systems audits and ways to improve water efficiency and recycling of grey water.

Q: Will there be a Code of Conduct for Third Party Intermediaries (TPIs) and similar agents?

A: Ofwat is exploring a number of options with regard to the conduct of TPIs and is expected to publish its considerations early in 2017.

What next?

There are plans to hold more workshops next year and details will be published on the Open Water website.

We also plan to further develop the FAQ shared on the day to cover more of the customer questions and concerns raised at the workshop.

Like to know more?

If you would like your organisation to know more about the new market and the choices available to you or your members, why not invite the Open Water partners to one of your meetings or events? Just contact Helen.Robinsongordon@ofwat.gsi.gov.uk

The Open Water website is the only impartial, independent website to provide a range of information for customers on the new market…. and includes a list of retailers who have been licensed by Ofwat. It should be your members’ first port of call.

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