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Tel: +44 [0]20 7253 9900
Fax: +44 [0]20 7253 9911

United Utilities

United Utilities is the UK’s largest listed water company, and is responsible for supplying water for 3 million homes and 200,000 businesses across North West England.

United Utilities serves seven million customers across the North West. The region has one of the largest populations of economically deprived households in the country.

The area falls below the English benchmark for other key indicators of deprivation including educational, physical and mental health indicators, as well as financial.

United Utilities serves a region where water customers have high levels of disengagement and debt. Half are financially stretched or in conditions of urban adversity, while 540,000 receive benefits (30% of the UK total).

A significant minority of customers (80,000 – 100,000) remained resistant to contact from United Utilities and there were geographical clusters of bad debt particularly in certain parts of Liverpool, North Manchester and the Cumbrian coast.

United Utilities wanted to understand how to better engage with disengaged customers and those in debt, with the aim of identifying customers who could benefit from additional services, and understanding what these services might look like.

To identify these customers, and how United Utilities could improve services, it needed empathetic, human-centred qualitative and quantitative research.


United Utilities approached Populus to conduct sensitive, human-centred research to find out what their customers’ lives were really like, and how they could more effectively engage customers in debt so that they can be helped.

As a complex piece of research, Populus took a piloted, staged and multi-audience approach. Populus’s qualitative experts conducted empathetic, understanding research with real consumers across the area. Populus also conducted quantitative research of 250 consumers in the region.

The research showed that respondents didn’t have knowledge or awareness of the support available to them. If they did know, the schemes were confusing. Shame and embarrassment often stopped consumers from seeking help, which resulted in people not pursuing a solution and spiralling into debt.


As a result of Populus research, United Utilities were able to make changes which really made a difference to customers’ lives.

The research showed a multi-channel engagement approach was badly needed. The research shows that targeted and relentless micro-activity was required to effectively engage consumers. Using insight from the research, United Utilities was able to make the following changes:

Communications were developed to be more welcoming and customer friendly:

Assistance was placed front and centre, not hidden away:

Town Action Plans focused activity on specific areas eg. Blackpool

As a result of Populus research for United Utilities:

  • 40,000 customers have signed up to schemes – and are staying there
  • Proven bad debt has reduced by £8.4 million in that timescale
  • More customers are eligible for schemes – and know it
  • United Utilities are on target to double the number of customers signing up to assistance schemes

The findings were presented at the MRS Utilities Conference as an industry-leading example of human-focused market research.

Unlock the Critical Knowledge brands need to make better decisions through tailored research methods. Find out more about Populus’s Business & Consumer Insight team by calling 020 7253 9900 or emailing info@populus.co.uk.

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