Key Points
  • Energy and Utility (E&U) businesses need to place more focus on reaching out to vulnerable customers and create greater awareness for their priority services

  • Meter reading assistance, gas safety checks, and free prepaid meters are some of the priority services that can benefit vulnerable customers

  • An efficient and straightforward system can be designed to rise above existing challenges and guarantee accessibility of priority services to vulnerable customers

Energy and Utility(E&U) providers have always been subject to their customers’ on-going expectations for the administration of uninterrupted services, accurate and cost-efficient billing. As a result of these essential expectations, customers are unaware of the extra valuable services available to them. It has also left them fairly indifferent to their E&U providers who choose to focus on cost rather than value.

Developing differentiating customer experiences (CX) in an environment that predominantly consists of transactional customer-company interactions can therefore be both challenging and exciting. This is precisely what E&U enterprises are discovering as they look to enhance service levels for ‘vulnerable’ customers.

A Volatile Definition

Who can be termed a ‘vulnerable’ customer? The question remains uncertain and ambiguous. So, let us ask you, from an energy perspective – What makes a person vulnerable? It could be a disability or impairment, financial commitments or mental health. In fact, there have been instances where customers have disagreed on being considered vulnerable, thus making it difficult for the government and E&U enterprises to offer any support.

The uncertainty is understandable. Labelling a customer ‘vulnerable’ can have reinforcing and contradictory points. You will see this illustrated in people who find themselves in challenging situations, but are oblivious of their vulnerability. Such customers might not want to approach someone for assistance, due to the negative connotation associated with vulnerability. Quite a few utility businesses have now addressed this challenge by providing ‘priority services.’ It is much easier for a customer to accept ‘priority services’ as opposed to accepting the ‘vulnerable’ label.

As we transition to a flexible energy system, the more affluent customers now have the means to access renewable and off-grid energy. This could result in an increase in grid energy which will have a negative impact on customers who remain on it. Additionally, the amount of new vulnerable clients will rise, and the vulnerability of existing vulnerable customers will also increase.

E&U enterprises usually register customers for priority services after identifying a need, however, they seldom inform customers that they have been registered. They also fail to alert such customers of the broad scope of services they are able to provide. Combine this with the customers’ existing low expectations bordering on apathy towards their E&U providers, and it’s no surprise that vulnerable customers are not adequately supported.

Vulnerable customers have found great value in the following priority services:

  • Gas safety checks

  • Meter reading assistance

  • Bill nominee schemes

  • Moving of meters

  • Information in better accessible formats

  • Advance notice for power interruptions

  • Free prepaid meters

  • Energy saving advice and access to in-home improvements

  • Payment plans

Connecting with vulnerable customers and increasing awareness around priority services is not as easy as it seems. Although face-to-face interaction can be effective, it is also labour-intensive and expensive. Some E&U enterprises therefore work with third parties. At a Customer Trust Council roundtable in London, a combination of senior representatives from small-scale and large energy and water enterprises proposed the idea of a ‘market operator’. This will help manage data pertaining to vulnerable customers across all utility sectors. They were confident that a simple and effective system, complying with data protection rules could be designed.

It's crucial for E&U enterprises to protect customers in vulnerable situations. On that account, they should collaborate and focus their efforts on tailoring changes in their priority services and making it accessible to more eligible people. However difficult it may seem, this effort to reach vulnerable customers should be relentless.

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