Uninterrupted services and accurate, low-cost billing have always been the expectations of consumers from their Energy and Utility (E&U) providers. Such minimal expectations have led to limited awareness of additional services for consumers. It has also left them fairly indifferent to their E&U providers who choose to focus on cost rather than value.
Initiatives to develop nuanced customer experiences in such a largely transactional customer-company relationship therefore can be both challenging and exciting. This is exactly what E&U companies are finding as they look to enhance service levels for ‘vulnerable’ customers.
An Elusive Definition
For years the question of who can be termed a ‘vulnerable’ customer has remained ambiguous and uncertain. What makes people vulnerable specifically with respect to energy? It could be disabilities or impairments, financial considerations or mental health. In fact, there have been instances of customers disagreeing on being considered vulnerable — making it difficult for the government and E&U companies to offer any relief or help.
It is easy to understand this fuzziness. Labeling a customer ‘vulnerable’ can have reinforcing and contradictory points. For example, people may find themselves in difficult circumstances, but do not see themselves as really vulnerable. Such consumers may not want to reach out for possible assistance purely on the perceived negative connotation of vulnerability. Quite a few utilities have now circumvented this challenge by providing ‘priority services,’ which is easier for customers to accept than the label of being ‘vulnerable.’
With the transition to a flexible energy system, the more affluent customers have better options to access green energy and off-grid energy more easily. This could cause the grid to become more expensive over time for customers who remain on it. It could add new vulnerable clients, while increasing the vulnerability of existing vulnerable customers.
E&U companies generally register customers for priority services after identifying a need, but seldom make them aware that they have been signed up. Neither do they make such customers aware of the range of services they can avail. Combine this with consumers’ existing low expectations bordering on apathy towards their E&U providers, and it is no surprise that vulnerable customers are not adequately supported.
Some of the priority services that can benefit vulnerable customers are:
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
Reaching out to vulnerable customers and creating greater awareness for priority services has its fair share of challenges. While face-to-face contact can be effective, it is also labor-intensive and costly. Some E&U companies work with third parties. At a Customer Trust Council roundtable in London, a mix of senior representatives from small and large energy and water companies mooted the idea of a ‘market operator’ to manage information on 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 vital for E&U companies to protect consumers in vulnerable situations. Hence, they should collaborate and take concerted efforts to tailor changes in their priority services and make it accessible to more eligible people. However difficult it may seem, this effort to reach vulnerable customers should be relentless.