Despite the government’s recent energy bills freeze providing a measure of reassurance against unsustainable rises, customers are still facing cost challenges. Utilities providers must work together to help those who rely on them – especially the most vulnerable.

I was delighted to be invited recently to a panel debate at the Consumer Vulnerability and Debt Conference, entitled ‘Uniting utilities to support customers through an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis’.

If there was one thing about which everyone on the panel agreed, it’s that this is very much still a crisis, despite the government’s recent announcement to freeze energy prices and “urgently take action to reform broken energy market”, with Prime Minister Liz Truss setting out steps to support people and businesses with their energy bills.

There are four things that I believe utilities providers need to focus on, to help their customers during this tough time - in particular the most vulnerable juggling between debt recovery and customer wellbeing:

  1. recognise that vulnerability will stay in the market for many months to come
  2. be sure that customers are well informed and not believing false information
  3. embracing technology to understand how vulnerability changes from customer to customer and adapt accordingly
  4. focus on accessibility and become better at sharing data.
Vulnerability: the ‘new normal’?

Customers are really struggling with their energy bills right now, in some cases more at the moment than even during the peak of the pandemic. Pre-paid customers are arguably affected the most where they’re on a higher rate and they’re also more likely to be in houses that have poor insulation and EBSS scores, so will use more energy.

We need to recognise and remember that, despite the price freeze, costs have still doubled since last October ‘s announcement – these are record rises. And these cost pressures are happening now, before winter has even arrived to bring with it peak seasonal costs. We simply don’t know exactly how bad things will get, as there are so many variables play. We don’t know how bad the weather will be; whether Covid will spike again; how bad the cost-of-living crisis will get; what’s next for inflation, how high the interest rate will rise, and so on.

What seems without question is that people on lower incomes are going to suffer more. In fact, Utilities Week has reported that it’s the highest earners who are going to benefit most from the price freeze.

There will be more vulnerable customers, who we must treat with empathy and by applying emotional listening - we may even need a new word for ‘vulnerable’. One phrase used often during the height of the pandemic was that we were in the ‘new normal’. That seems to me to be what vulnerability has become in 2022 – the normal state of affairs, not the exception.

More needs to be done to communicate the price cap

Throughout this current cost-of-living crisis, there have been certain misconceptions. One is about what an energy price cap really means.

Some customers do not understand that the £2,500 cap is based on a typical household, that it’s not an ultimate limit on what how much a bill will end up costing. It’s crucial that customers don’t believe that it’s impossible for them to end up paying more than a figure they have been reading about in the media.

There’s a real risk that many will think, with the removal of the October rise, – for so long this dreaded event that was lurching menacingly over the horizon – all will now be fine. Clearly, this is far from the case.

Fill up your tech toolbox

During the debate, many of the panellists – including myself – agreed that the Priority Services Register doesn’t by itself solve the huge issue we have with vulnerable customers. The register creates awareness but support is limited.

There was a comment during the debate about “the toolbox being empty” – i.e. there are no other forms of support available. But I can say emphatically that the toolbox is certainly not empty. For instance, technology such as assisted customer conversations (ACC) can support both customers and colleagues with real-time sentiment and empathy measuring, giving prompts and advice to the agent and flagging issues.

There have been great advances in AI, too, which as well as being a preferable option for customers in some cases (for instance, when they don’t wish to speak to another human being owing to embarrassment), digital solutions can offer something that people alone usually cannot: 24/7 support. Customers do not stop worrying about paying their bills at night; in fact, that is when anxiety is often at its most intense. They may therefore want to pick up the phone to call their utilities supplier for reassurance – but have to wait until the call centre reopens at 9am the next morning.

Digital technology can also be used efficiently as a filter to prioritise demand – as a sort of triage for who is the most urgent and may need human intervention, if needed. And, for when the call centres are open, companies need to work on their staff’s listening skills, have more employees available to increase accessibility and to always treat customers as individuals. And we mustn’t forget that utility company staff who work in customer services spend all week dealing with difficult situations that they themselves may be vulnerable to as well.

The potential in sharing data

Customers have to repeatedly tell their story to all the organisations they buy from, adding an extra time burden and inconvenience to what for many is already a traumatic situation.

Organisations sharing data between themselves would therefore help matters hugely – with the GDPR considerations taken into account, of course. Access was a key theme discussed by the panel, with it being widely agreed that a central portal/repository would be a big game-changer for this, allowing customers to enter information on their vulnerability into a central source for all organisations to access. The ideal would be to be able to give access to data to help customers and make sure that customers can access the support they need and that they are entitled to.

At Capita, we recently ran an exercise on data capture for an organisation to identify vulnerable customers via a predictive model, to allow the organisation to take steps to support the cohort. The rough/raw data was really powerful and gave us a taste of what could be achieved out in the ‘real’ world of energy companies.

Taking a united stand

The title of the debate I attended says a lot about what utilities must do as a sector: unite. There’s certainly an increased need to balance debt recovery and customer well-being – but since companies are all trying to solve the same problem, a shared/joined-up approach would be more efficient and effective. Let’s hope that, if and when customers’ situations get worse, we’ll be seeing more attempts by providers to work together to do more for them.

Read more about how humans and AI can work together in harmony to help vulnerable customers:
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Written by

Alan Linter

Alan Linter

Innovation and Data Science Director at Capita

In his current role, Alan is responsible for searching out new and innovative technology solutions that allow our clients to be at the forefront of customer service delivery. He is also responsible for our Data Science practice that looks to link complex data sets and maximise the value that data can generate for clients in improving customer experience, generating revenue and reducing costs.

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