Interview with the equaliser

SW's director of customer services talks to WWT about business rates

One of the major challenges facing Scottish Water (SW) during its first year of operation was the need to harmonise the widely differing business customer charges which saw, for example, small firms in the north of Scotland paying higher rates than much larger companies in the central belt. The anomalies had to be rectified and this became the chief focus for SW's director of customer services, Cheryl Black. Black, who formerly worked with NTL in the midlands and north east of England, joined Scottish Water in January 2002.

SW's only female executive director, Black tells WWT how this key objective has recently been achieved: "For many years business customers in Scotland have been faced with widely varying charges for water and wastewater services throughout the country and it was our firm objective to improve this situation. One of the major complaints from business customers was the complexity of the old charge scheme.

This was confusing for them and gave little opportunity for accurate budgeting of costs year-on-year. Discussions with various groups such as chambers of commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that companies and commercial operators also wanted greater warning of changes to charges. "Around the country we had, for example, business customers paying higher standing charges and lower volumetric charges in contrast to other areas; there were also discrepancies in some places in the rates being levied for surface water drainage. We felt that the fairest approach would be to adopt one consistent method of charging that would also allow businesses to understand their bills and better plan for the future.

"The new harmonised business charge scheme was implemented on April 1 and will apply to the 2003/4 period. We could have phased the introduction of this scheme over three years, the time scale given to us by the water commissioner, however we considered it better all round to complete the exercise as quickly as possible. Customers now have a clearer picture of what the charges will be over the next two years and we can now say with confidence that charge increases over this period for our business customers should be around the rate of inflation. "As an example, with the harmonised scheme of charges now in effect, a restaurant in the north of the country could see its charges reduced by 23%, however a garage in the east may find its charges have increased by 20%. It is really a balancing act across a whole range of charges. Undoubtedly, some business customers will be uncomfortable with the new charges but in the long-term this system we've introduced will be of significant benefit to everyone."

Asked about the possibility of Scottish Water eventually taking over responsibility for domestic customer billing, which is currently operated by Scotland's 13 local authorities which are paid by SW for collections, Black responded: "There are no immediate plans to do this. The statutory order which allows the councils to bill domestic customers on our behalf runs to 2005 and we will be asking for this to be extended. During this time there will be a period of consultation during which we will continue our programme of discussions with all of Scotland's local authorities. There are mixed views on this subject.

"Meantime, we shall work with councils to improve the current system of billing and examine what other possibilities there might be. We shall be exploring every opportunity."

Of Scottish Water's priorities for the year ahead Black emphasised that major efforts across the entire customer service operation would result in improvements "for anyone doing business with SW." She added: "This means improving our relationship-management in communicating and consulting with our customers, working with communities where for example we intend to build new works. "Our absolute focus will also be to improve our service levels around 'transactional activity' in how we deal with customer letters, phone calls and appointments. We are investing heavily in new technology including new customer contact manage-ment systems."



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