The need for the utilities industry to generally “keep up” when it comes to digital is clear and largely recognised.

When it comes to leveraging digital channels in the utilities sector, there are many existing core components driving the pace of change. For example: providing better access to customer service, effectively utilising customer data to deliver a more personalised experience, and achieving commercial benefits by taking operating costs out of distribution and servicing channels.

The regulators are expected to keep stepping up their general focus on how firms are operating when it comes to customer vulnerability. Clearer regulatory requirements have already been set by Ofgem and Ofwat and, more than ever, firms will be expected to implement some real operational and cultural changes within their business.

Natan Doron, head of operational policy at Energy UK, says: “2018 is the year in which energy suppliers will have to demonstrate they are being more proactive than ever before in addressing vulnerability. That means more investment in staff capacity and a review of evidence, policy and frontline practice.

“The more that suppliers can co-operate, the better for customers, and Energy UK will be doing all it can to provide that platform.”

Research carried out over the last year or two by various regulators, firms, consultancies, academic institutions and trade organisations means that – for the first time ever – energy, water and telecoms firms have access to a more detailed, complete view of the vulnerable customer population in the UK through the aggregated data. The challenge for firms will come from becoming more proactive in the usage of that data when it comes to dealing with a vulnerable customer.

Firms are starting to recognise compliance and conduct as an opportunity to better connect with their customers. ‘Getting digital right’ is a key aspect of achieving good outcomes for customers, and one that firms, if committed to moving forward in an innovative (yet compliant) way, can gain significant commercial advantages from.

It’s clear that there are still some hurdles to face before firms are in a position to attest to, and be able to, demonstrate their fair treatment of customers in vulnerable circumstances.

The principal challenge is the ability to identify and deal with vulnerability in a way that recognises individual needs. Factors including organisational objectives and the operating model structure will drive how capable front and back office staff are at identifying and dealing with vulnerability.