Procurement · 11 August 2017

Water retailers urged to help small business owners understand new market

Since April 2017, just 36,000 small business owners have successfully switched water supplier
Since April 2017, just 36,000 small business owners have successfully switched water supplier

Small business owners deserve better support from water retailers in order to make the most of market deregulation, according to the water watchdog for England and Wales.

In April 2017, England’s non-domestic water market was derestricted to give 1.2m small business customers the right to seek better rates and take further control of their supply. Deregulation, in place in Scotland since 2008, was designed to boost competition via new entrants and put pressure on bigger suppliers to improve services and rates.

However, data for the first quarter since deregulation showed that just 36,000 small business owners in England had so far opted to switch water supplier.

Now, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater), the watchdog for English and Welsh water customers, has pushed retailers to address a lack of understanding of the new market that has held back small business customers from making savings.

The number of queries from non-household customers received by the watchdog indicated the extent of confusion.

In the first quarter of 2017/18, CCWater registered six times as many calls from non-domestic customers as the same quarter the year previously. Out of all enquiries received by the watchdog, over 90 per cent were from small business owners.

Micro business owners, employing under ten staff members, appeared most underserved, making up two-thirds of total complaints and queries.

Complaints were also found to have increased from the same demographics. Over half of the 370 complaints related to billing and charges, reflecting the same ratio of previous years.

But, due to the new types of complaints had begun to emerge. Many small business customers had struggled to find information about retailers and their tariffs, while poor communication between retailers and wholesalers had led to operational issues such as leaks and low water pressure.

In a statement, Tony Smith, chief executive of CCWater, said despite a rise in queries, there was “little to suggest” any major difficulties had been encountered by customers switching supplier.

However, he said it was “clear” many small business owners needed greater assistance in understanding the new market and the retailers available.

“Retailers and water companies need to work harder to ensure customers are well informed so they can exercise their choice with confidence,” Smith added.

“In the meantime, we will continue to provide customers with the support and advice they need and gauge their experiences through our complaint handling and research.”

CCWater has claimed it is working closely with retailers to fix early teething problems, and is set to publish the first league table of water retailers in the Autumn of 2018.

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Simon Caldwell is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and has previously worked as a content editor in local government and the ecommerce industry.


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