Utility companies are anticipating a surge in debt non-payment following the economic downturn caused by Covid. The wave did not hit immediately as expected, but it’s predicted to happen by the end of 2023.
Amidst the current cost-of-living crisis, many organisations are implementing customer support measures and utility companies have proactively reached out to their customers with information on how to get help. These support measures are in place, and utility companies are poised to assist customers when the non-payment storm hits.
Here are some examples of how UK utility companies are using technolgy and data to support vulnerable customers. These were presented at the Utility Week Customer Summit 2023.
Before implementing their new software, EDF customers were all put on the same customer journey. The results were not optimal: customers were not engaging with the company, they were complaining, and not receiving adequate support. This created a cycle where customers in debt remained so for longer.
This was due to the clunky and costly digital tools that were difficult to change, and a suitable off-the-shelf product in the market would have taken 18 months to deliver and would disrupt operations.
To avoid these challenges, the company built their own in-house tool using an extensive data lake and then segmented users into profiles. This allowed them to create bespoke customer journeys, tailored communications, and support based on customer attributions.
Each customer journey is data driven, for example, a different journey would be mapped out for someone who has dropped off their direct debt to a customer who hasn’t paid their first bill.
EDF also implemented their CARE+ project: “At the start of 2022 we launched our CARE Steps of Support to ensure we always provide a level of support that is tailored to individual needs.” This programme follows a process to identify customers in need and aims to help reduce bills, understand the customer’s ability to pay, agree on a payment resolution, and offer extra support and advice.
The results of CARE+ are impressive – the reduction of 205 in the number of customers in debt at 45 days after billing; 10% increase in customers accessing support; a decrease in complaints; an increase in customers on sustainable payment methods; and improvement in their cash flow.
Additionally, EDF uses Machine Learning to train models to understand and adapt to customer needs, for example, to identify which customers are likely to disconnect or default and then send them on a particular journey towards a positive outcome.
Ultimately, it’s important to get the foundations in place first to understand your customers and then build the tech and communications strategy upon them.
The UK water company was looking for the best way to support those in need during a crisis, and as a forward-thinking organisation, they looked for innovative ways to achieve this, particularly by using data to identify which customers are vulnerable.
The first initiative was to introduce the online Benefits Checker service. They have since helped customers identify £2m per year in unclaimed benefits. This service is in partnership with gov.uk and Anglian is the first water company in this benefits checker system.
By using these tools, companies have early visibility of people who need support and can step in to help them.
Another initiative is offering focussed support using an affordability score combined with telephony routing. For example, someone with a low affordability score would be routed down the Extra Care path.
Furthermore, agents are trained to identify circumstances and then offer personalised payment plans and options using their bespoke Extra Care Assessment tool, the Policy in Practice Calculator (www.betteroffcalculator.co.uk), which helps to understand a person’s debt.
Bringing in digital communications and a debt journey has also lifted customer engagement by 4 times.
Anglian work in partnership with agencies to help customers in financial stress, including:
South East Water has put in place specific measures to step in and assist their vulnerable customers. These include:
The utility company had a goal to get the right support to the households that needed it. However, they faced a challenge when they found out that only about half of their customers were aware of the available help, or they didn’t take it up due to poor perceptions or a lack of trust.
To address this issue, the company has implemented an auto-enrolment process by sharing data with local authorities to identify those who are eligible for the social tariff for low-income households. This practice complies with the Digital Economy Act of 2017, which allows for such data sharing.
Cadent recognises the challenges that face organisations dealing with customers in the current financial climate. Companies battle to identify at-risk customers and then on top of this they struggle to reach out to them, especially as each customer has unique needs. Many of their customers are living in, or approaching, fuel poverty, and they feel it is their responsibility to help them as part of their role as an energy provider.
Ways Cadent helps:
The Centres for Warmth project aims to support vulnerable communities in areas of high deprivation, fuel poverty, and risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. by partnering with local charities in these areas. The project strives to keep people “warm, safe and connected.”
Through this project, Cadent provides funding, resources, and training to community centres, enabling them to expand their services and offer trusted advice to vulnerable households around energy efficiency, gas safety and information about the Priority Services Register.
Since the projects inception in 2021, they have invested more than £1.4million into the Centres for Warmth with a total social value greater than £13,461,378.32.
To their surprise, of all the service on offer, it was the free blankets that were the most popular this past winter.
Companies are recognising the importance of addressing customer vulnerability and are taking steps to better support and protect customers at-risk. By using innovative technology, offering tailored customer journeys, engaging with stakeholders, and collaborating with regulators, companies can help to ensure that vulnerable customers receive the support they need.
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