Monday, December 17

The good, the bad and the ugly: Thames Water

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If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil – It’s seeing a company get away with providing repeatedly poor service and get away with it. No apparent sanction. No sense of guilt.

Yes, Thames Water – I am talking about you. What makes my anger even worse is an ownership structure which appears to point that the only people are suffering here are the customers. An absence of clarity is rarely an accident. I suspect it’s a lack of genuine care about those who pay them yet have to bear the brunt of their sheer incompetence!

What you might find strange is my anger is not because I am one of the Thames Water victims. I am actually an untroubled customer of Thames Water, without any major interruptions to my water supply in the four decades I have lived in South London. I have been a long-time advocate for great customer experience and when I see companies that so flagrantly disregard it – I speak up. The experiences written in this article should not be happening in 2017.

Let me tell you about the experience of David Wertheim as reported recently in the FT. David is the owner of an impressive Islington antiques shop and possesses a large and expensive collection of Japanese art built up over almost 40 years. Early one morning last December a cast-iron pipe burst and David arrived to find cabinets holding hundreds of thousands of pounds of unique and precious paintings and prints submerged in flood water. Completely ruined.

The shop is now back open, but water ingress is still very evident and he is very worried it will happen again. You could class this as simply bad luck – except in David Wertheim’s case it was not the first or indeed the second or the third. It’s the seventh – yes, the seven in seven years.

Not an isolated incident

Thames Water’s maintenance record suggests bad luck could happen to any of their London customers, since there were 31 serious bursts including eight high-profile floods in just two months at the end of 2016 according to an internal report that has now been made public. Thames Water’s record is simply the worst out of all of UK’s water companies.

Steve Robertson, the new Chief Executive Officer claimed that customer experience is a critical element of the company’s strategy and he has spent a significant amount of time meeting both customers and employees. Interestingly, given the turn of events you would expect David Wertheim would have been one of them. He was not.

I state again – Thames Water’s record is simply the worst out of all of UK’s water companies!

Do they have enough money?

Valid question. They made just over 2 billion GBP in revenue and an operating profit running at almost 30%. So, the answer is clearly yes.

Thames Water also proudly announced they spent 1 billion GBP on maintaining their pipes but that has worked out exactly the same amount as the average per year for the previous 12 years.

So, let’s get it straight: we have a water company posting healthy profit returns yet it is investing less in real terms per year than ever and posting the worst track record.

In for the long haul

Arguably, Thames Water has the most challenging area to look after given London’s extensive and ageing water and sewerage system. That doesn’t excuse a maintenance and replacement schedule that is running behind schedule – so far behind, in fact, that some estimates suggest it will take 357 years to renew the network if continued at the current rate.

What makes this frustrating is that the ownership of Thames Water seems about as murky as some of the water it processes, which makes accountability hard to pinpoint. Sure, we have a regulator but following criticism by the FT – again, are they the only people bothered by this? – OFWAT’s response reads as too little, too late and less than equal to the challenge.

Hopefully the residents of Islington won’t be troubled by repeated floods any longer as there are diversions around extensive repair works in Upper Street, although when I spoke to David Wertheim – still in discussion with Thames Water about compensation – he didn’t think it would fix his recurring problem.

I drove past the works the other day: a sign on the hoardings said, ‘come and chat to us about what we’re doing’. I guess if you’ve got 357 years to replace the pipes, a few minutes out to chat to the customers isn’t going to make much difference, but frankly I’d be happier if Thames Water’s long-term commitment to its customers went considerably beyond a bit of customer handling on the front line.

 

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About Author

Business strategist, consultant and change manager who helps companies become genuinely customer-centric. Nick delivers customer-driven business transformation projects and has worked across many industries including banking and finance, insurance, telecommunications, industrial and public sector. Has held senior roles with variety of blue chip names including BT, Royal Bank of Scotland, CSC and Sema Group. Currently Head of Delivery at NextTen Innovation Solutions

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