As Britain comes to terms with the reality of enforced isolation as part of ever-tighter efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19, essential service providers such as utilities have been handed an unexpected opportunity to reinforce their commitment to the wellbeing of their most vulnerable customers.

Whilst our water, gas and electricity companies have long made special provision for certain cohorts of the population primarily the elderly and those with significant health and financial issues – the current crisis has created a fresh category of compromised customer: the so-called ‘newly vulnerable’. These are the people whose livelihoods have been imperilled by the general lockdown, who are unable to go to work as normal and who have either been laid off or put on protective notice. Newly reliant on state supports to pay their rent and bills, they are facing a financial challenge they simply couldn’t have foreseen just a few short weeks ago.

Against this unprecedented backdrop, Britain’s utility companies now have a unique chance to step up to the plate and support the most vulnerable in our society.

At Capita, we want to help our clients play their part in the national effort to overcome this crisis. That’s why we’ve developed a new application to help critical infrastructure organisations manage their current and newly vulnerable customer base in a number of different ways.

Designed primarily for people affected by Covid-19, the app works by:

  • Facilitating customers to more easily self-refer changes to their personal, health or financial situations. Utilities companies can then add these customers to their Priority Services Register to ensure they are kept informed and top-of-mind during critical infrastructure events;
  • Enabling customers who are experiencing new financial hardship to apply for a payment holiday or to change their payment plan, i.e. from standard bi-monthly to pay-as-you-go;
  • Leveraging geospatial mapping to prioritise the allocation of resources so that vulnerable customers can be attended to first at times of outages. For example, if a burst water main causes a large number of customers to be cut off, the app can be used to identify areas that have the highest density of vulnerable customers and therefore to prioritise repair work.

This solution can help those who are self-isolating due to a suspected or confirmed case of the virus; those who are housebound as a result of having to care for children or elderly relatives; those who previously relied on family for help with services such as billing and other queries, and those with new financial concerns. Naturally, the app also caters to existing vulnerable customers, who shouldn’t be forgotten in all of this either.

It can be implemented and operational in a matter of days. It enables organisations to quickly and efficiently tailor their services to individuals in need. No clogging up of emergency numbers and call-centre hotlines; no incomplete picture of the overall situation; no guesswork on the part of operators and distributors – just cold, real-time facts in support of a generous, compassionate response.

On a broader level, the utilities industry was already going through its biggest transformation in generations before this crisis. Climate change, the phasing out of fossil fuels and the growing popularity of renewable energies; the advent of new technologies and digital disruption; new regulatory obligations, and rapidly changing customer expectations – all of these had combined to challenge the sector in a way it had rarely seen before.

The additional pressures and changes we are seeing now as a result of the pandemic will only accelerate the need for our utilities firms to focus even more closely on digitalisation and disruption.

Some in the industry might see this as yet another obstacle. We prefer to look on it as a golden opportunity. True, the way it has come about has hardly been ideal – but it has the potential to advance considerably the sector’s strategic agenda. Or, to put it another way, perhaps this is finally the time we stop talking about digital transformation and actually do something to make it happen…

When all this ends – and it will end – we have to accept that there will be new norms. In terms of utilities and other essential services like rail, broadband and telecoms generally, the public will look to the industry for leadership in their pursuit of improved services, personalised care and maximum flexibility. The single common denominator that will enable all of this? Digitalisation.

Peter Drucker once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Our utility companies would do well to heed his words of wisdom.

Capita is committed to helping our clients during this time of Business UNusual – and we stand ready to do even more to expedite critical infrastructure solutions to help organisations maintain the vital services they provide to their customers and to society as a whole.

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