Across the UK, the use of food banks is on the rise, even as household debt is once again spiralling out of control and the mass rollout of Universal Credit is widely predicted to cause terrible hardship. Against this backdrop, it has never been more important for utilities to identify and support vulnerable customers – those with financial difficulties and those with other vulnerabilities – in order to signpost the help available and to offer appropriate support, whether that’s a social tariff, a place on the Priority Services Register, or a different or enhanced form of communication.
And utilities are trying. As we report this week, Energy UK has launched a vulnerability taskforce, working closely with the Money Advice Trust, to issue guidance to suppliers on vulnerability and mental health. In the water sector, nearly all water companies offer social tariffs; and in energy, most networks actively seek out customers who require a place on the Priority Services Register.
But these good intentions are often frustrated. As we heard at a recent meeting of the Utility Week and WNS Customer Trust Council, low levels of trust in utilities and poor engagement too often mean customers are reluctant to identify themselves as vulnerable, and genuine offers of help go unheeded. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the demonisation of utilities in the national media is the negative impact it has on how likely vulnerable customers are to accept such offers of help. It’s galling to hear of social tariffs that have just a handful of applicants when the real level of need out there is so apparent.
It’s not just utilities that suffer with a problem of trust. We heard how one water company won the support of its customer base for a social tariff on the condition that customers were individually assessed, rather than passported through the benefits system – because people don’t trust the benefits system to identify those truly in need.
There are solutions, or the beginnings of solutions, out there. Data sharing is being trialled; face-to-face contact is markedly more successful than other forms of communication around vulnerability; and working with trusted third parties such as charities is effective. Over the coming months, Utility Week will be working closely with industry to highlight the good work that is happening on this critical issue, and looking at innovative ways of overcoming some of the challenges. Let us know if you’d like to be involved.