Man and boy washing cups in sink

Alongside Ofwat, we have published joint research which examines water supply interruptions that impacted South East Water customers in June 2023. The work looks at the experiences of customers’ and how they felt the company handled the incident.

The research is the first in a series, looking at incident responses. The aim of the work is to hear and understand customers’ experiences and their expectations of companies during a service issue, and to find out what companies can do to improve their response when things do go wrong.

Key findings of the research

  • Almost all participants were disappointed by South East Water’s management of the June 2023 water supply interruption.
  • Participants in the research believed that for many the poor way the company handled the incident made the experience worse. This led to feelings of frustration and, in some cases, anger, and a loss of trust in the company.
  • The research highlighted that the company’s communication was not as good as it could have been. Customers felt the company should have been more proactive in telling them about the supply problems, and more open and honest in the information provided on issues such as timescales.
  • Most participants did not feel supported by South East Water throughout the incident. Customers said they did not feel the alternative water provided was sufficient to meet their needs. In addition, water deliveries felt sporadic and unpredictable, and the locations of water stations were not well publicised.
  • Vulnerable customers, including those who reported being on the Priority Services Register (PSR), had mixed experiences of the incident. Some received water deliveries from the company, while others, who believed they had registered for extra help, did not get water delivered.
  • Very few participants were contacted by the company directly with an offer of support. Only a few had received compensation, and numerous participants had been told by the company that they were not entitled to compensation.

The report sets out a number key lessons for water companies. These include:

  • The quality of communication is key to customers’ experience of a water supply incident, and their subsequent perceptions of their water company.
  • Companies should inform affected customers as soon as possible about an incident, being open and honest with the information they provide.
  • During an incident, all available communication methods should be used to inform those affected. This should include both digital channels and direct communication.
  • Additionally, companies should enable customers who want to contact them to do so easily and quickly through their preferred channel.
  • Communication should be tailored for specific audiences and their needs. It should tell people which customers will have water delivered. Customers in vulnerable circumstances – who may not be on the Priority Services Register – should be able to easily request water if they need it.
  • Companies should ensure customers on the PSR are aware of the services they will receive in the event of an incident.
  • Companies should ensure information about the Guaranteed Standards Scheme (GSS) is actively promoted to their customers. This should include the process for compensation and what they are entitled to, either as part of the GSS or company goodwill. If compensation is applicable, this should be provided within a reasonable timescale.
  • Companies should take the opportunity in post-incident communications to raise awareness of their PSR and the additional practical assistance they can give to people in vulnerable circumstances.

The research into this incident has shined a light on the upheaval and stress caused to people during a water supply incident, but it has also shown that the way companies manage these incidents, especially around communications, has a big impact on the customer experience.

We will use the findings of this and future research to share the lessons learned and highlight best practice with the industry, with the expectation that companies will implement improvements and adopt changes where needed. We will work with South East Water to help ensure the experiences of their customers are better in any future incidents.

Download South East Water incident response research (pptx – 6 MB)