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Testing the water

resizerIt’s hard being an active and engaged customer. We are at our most strident when it comes to buying physical items, like clothes and food, where the market is competitive, the price is transparent, it is easy to shop around and there are clear returns policies to start to level the playing field.  The comparison sites help us navigate complex tariffs for phone and broadband, but it still takes time to get a good deal and more importantly know whether you really are getting the best deal for your money.

And this only helps when it comes to directly measuring the value for money. If you want to shop ethically, environmentally or on the quality of the product or service, the information is difficult to find on the internet and may not be user friendly.

Utilities and financial services can prove even harder to navigate. Privatisation of water, electricity and gas does not mean we have the ability to literally get our water or gas from another companies’ pipes, or attach another electricity cable from another supplier into your home. Instead the supply can come from a company that has done a wholesale deal for the gas and competes on price alone to get it into your home, or in the case of water and sewage competes for a Government contract to supply your patch.

We don’t switch banks either, and this is made harder by the way the hide the charges they make – instead of being open these are often recouped through all sorts of over-priced charges,  lower interest rates and using our money to make more money. How can deice where to put our money if the information we need is hidden from us?

As a customer my ability to know what is best for me gets harder and harder the more important a service to my everyday existence – banking, electricity, telecommunications and water. It makes my head hurt. It’s no wonder that Brits rarely switch providers – it is hard to switch and this then allows industries to continue to pull the wool over our eyes and benefit their shareholders rather than their customers.

After my stint as CEO of Move Your Money I have become more convinced that we need strong and varied voices looking out for customers needs. Regulators only do part of the job, and they themselves need to be held to better account. Our financial regulators let us all down before and during the financial crisis, this was compounded by the revolving door between banks and the regulator (as our highest paid civil servants jumped ship after the crisis and joined the banks they were meant to be keeping an eye on). Our regulatory system does not inspire confidence.

Which! provides valuable information on products and services and is beginning to sharpen its teeth with more campaigns, Ethical Consumer affords us a short-cut to allow us to be a value led consumer. But both struggle with the enormity of the task at hand and have limited resources. What may be important to me as a customer may be different to the next person, so they each give me only part of the picture for me to be an empowered consumer.

And then of course these consumer campaigning organisations are only as good as the data they collect.  The information often is commercially sensitive so that the things we need to know most are hidden behind the veil of confidentiality.  Relevant data needs to be liberated and shared for good not hidden away – only then can I have what I need to help me make decisions about where I spend my money.

So why am I sharing this with you?  Well I have just taken on a new 3 year role as a consumer advocate for the Consumer Council for Water, the body looking out for the customers of the water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. Water is a vital utility and its delivery is complex.  It is not a service we can switch. 

I have set up this blog so I can share information as I learn more about the sector, ponder how we can be active consumers and ask you questions about dilemmas that are thrown up my the way.

I am looking forward to tell you more.