How utilities can provide smarter support for vulnerable customers

25th March 2024

Richard HigginBotham

by Richard Higginbotham

Could utilities get better at supporting vulnerable customers? The simple answer is Yes.

Greater collaboration could take services to the next level. And the technology needed already exists. Important steps have been taken within the utilities sector to ensure that vulnerable customers are prioritised for heating, power and water.

This group of customers can include people with mental health or physical needs, those with young children and residents who need help with communications.

Ofgem promotes the Priority Services Register – the free support service that makes sure extra help is available to people in vulnerable situations. Meanwhile, many energy companies have found innovative ways to extend their help. Often, these relate to how people disclose their needs, as well as services around their usage, bills, connection and support.

Ofwat says every water company is aiming to have at least 7% of customers registered for priority services by 2025. The industry regulator has also set out clear minimum standards for water companies and has challenged them to develop services that are “inclusive by design”.

So far, so good. But could support for vulnerable customers go further and faster? Here are some ideas to consider.

Providing support in real-time

In many cases, customers classed as vulnerable will have touch-points with healthcare services and sometimes with local authorities. They may also receive services from charities or private support agencies (such as delivered meals).

If a vulnerable customer’s circumstances changed – such as an urgent or prolonged stay in hospital – would it be helpful if utilities and all these other organisations knew about this immediately? Could bills be paused and the customer qualify for extra support?

In the meantime, could multiple providers share the contact details of nominated family, friends or Power of Attorney? And when the customer’s circumstances changed again, could everyone be notified once again, in real-time?

Ultimately, vulnerable customers and their representatives would benefit from an interconnected and responsive system of essential service providers – public and private.

Overcoming obstacles

This concept would raise issues, including:

  • Have organisations agreed standardised data-sharing protocols?
  • Could arrangements safeguard data privacy and meet regulatory compliance?
  • How would customers (or their representatives) understand and provide consent?

Some of this would take deep thinking and high-level co-operation. But the good news is the technologies and initiatives are happening to show that a more collaborative approach to support is possible.

Even if data integration opportunities with other organisations are limited, the speed at which you can roll out new services to support vulnerable customers has increased dramatically. Intuitive technology and sharable solutions have made the difference.

Utilities can access simple-to-use, low-code tools and robotic process automation to deliver change themselves. Customer service teams can connect disparate data streams, streamline workflows and create apps that deliver improved support. What’s more, they can share their innovation with others – within peer communities – and raise standards across the industry.

First steps in a positive direction

Organisations are finding ways to collaborate with others and improve care and experiences for customers. Here are examples from within the utilities sector and beyond:

UK Power Networks is working with other utilities companies to support customers in vulnerable circumstances. As part of broad innovation, the company is using a low-code platform to create new services quickly as well as an AI-powered automation and customer engagement tools.

Local authorities are collaborating as a community, sharing low-code apps that can improve customer care across a wide range of services. They can also access hundreds of pre-built applications and integrations – purpose-built for local government needs.

Housing associations are improving tenants’ experiences through collaboration. They can access a central hub of pre-built tenant relationship tools and case-management capabilities to provide better services – including those for vulnerable customers. This can include full-stack case management, workflow automation and streamlined processes.

Strong incentives for collaboration

Providing care for vulnerable customers is an industry-wide responsibility with common challenges. So, it makes sense for utility companies to work together to improve services faster.

Fortunately, cost-effective and adaptable technologies are available – enabling organisations to provide the inclusive services that customers need today.

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