After Mr M purchased a property, an account was opened in his name by the water company servicing the premises. However, Mr M's solicitor failed to provide paperwork indicating a change of ownership, and the water company opened Mr M's account using details from the Notice of Disposal form provided by the previous owner, which had Mr M's old address on it. As such, Mr M's water bills from June 2013 to March 2014 were sent to the incorrect address and were not paid.
The water company phoned Mr M on 26 March 2014 to discuss the arrears of $1,168. It was then established that the wrong address was being used, and copies of the old bills were resent to Mr M's correct address and a one month extension was applied in order for him to review his account. Mr M did not re-contact his water company to discuss his account and collection notices were issued in April and May 2014.
The water company and Mr M communicated on several further occasions, however, a payment plan could still not be agreed on. The water company issued a Caveat Warning Letter, registering its interest in Mr M's property in case he refused to address the arrears. Mr M and the water company were again unable to agree on a payment plan and the account was placed on hold for a second month. With no payments made on the account balance, another collection notice was issued. Following this, Mr M agreed to pay $150 a week in order to address the outstanding balance.
In June 2014 the water company was unable to obtain a meter read due to access issues caused by overgrown vegetation and an estimated bill was issued. An actual meter reading was taken in October 2014 and the previous estimated bill was cancelled and reissued, and had a smaller amount owing than the original estimated bill.
Mr M raised concerns about the estimated bill and the meter access issues with his water company over the phone and the water company customer service representative reported Mr M used abusive and inappropriate language. As a result the phone calls were terminated and contact with Mr M was limited to in-writing-only. Dissatisfied, Mr M contacted EWOV and an Assisted Referral was raised.
Mr M told EWOV that in order to resolve the issue he would like:
- A statutory declaration and photographic evidence of why the meter was not accessible.
- A refund for the meter reading charge as it was not completed.
- Recordings of his phone conversations with the company.
- 10 business days notice before a meter reading is to taken in future.
- All rates and charges waived for the next two years.
The Assisted Referral failed to resolve the issue, and due to the complexity of the case the water company requested the complaint be raised to an Investigation.
In response to Mr M's resolution requirements, the water company said that:
- Its contractors do not take photos of inaccessible meters and reiterated that the contractor was unable to read the meter due to covering vegetation. The meter reading charge would remain as the contractor still visited the premises and charged the water company.
- It would not be possible to provide 10 days written notice of a meter reading.
- It does not record calls made to the call centre so is unable to provide transcripts.
- It rejected the request for a full waiver of all rates and charges for the next two years, as it was not considered fair or reasonable.
EWOV discussed with Mr M what he believed to be a fair and reasonable outcome, and he adjusted his initial requirements and asked for:
- A written apology for banning phone communication as well as a resumption of phone contact.
- Written notice before a meter reading is to take place.
- A waiver of the remaining balance ($355) in recognition of poor customer service.
As part of the Investigation EWOV conducted a Good Industry Practice Assessment by contacting three other water companies and asked how they would handle the issue. The other companies said they would not have applied a phone ban as quickly, rather they would have escalated the calls to staff specifically trained to handle difficult customers, and would have continued phone contact. They also said that they record their phone calls, which would have avoided the disagreement about the nature of the calls. They agreed that it was not possible to provide 10 days notice of a meter reading, and said that the Water Act allowed for this. Finally, they said that they would offer an apology and a customer service gesture between $50 and $100 for applying the phone ban too soon.
After reviewing the Water Act, Section 133(1), EWOV found that employees or contractors of the water company are entitled to enter a property in order to read a meter, and thus no notice is required. Following an internal peer review and the Good Industry Practice Assessment, EWOV advised Mr M that a credit of $355 was not a fair and reasonable expectation, but also advised the water company that reinstating phone contact would be helpful in resolving the complaint.
The water company acknowledged that the phone ban was not in line with Good Industry Practice, and apologised for the inconvenience caused. It removed the phone ban and provided an experienced customer service contact for Mr M to contact in future. The water company also applied a credit of $50 to the account as a customer service gesture. The customer was satisfied and the case was closed.