Ahead of discussions around working towards a ‘just’ transition and best-in-class customer service at Utility Week Live, Utility Week Innovate explores some of the digital projects helping firms respond to the ‘dynamic’ nature of vulnerability.

With almost a quarter of Brits finding it difficult or very difficult to pay household bills in March according to the Office for National Statistics – a 17% increase since November – and 87% seeing an increase in their cost of living over the same period, the key to ensuring vulnerable customers don’t fall by the wayside is appreciating that vulnerability is not a “fixed state”, according to Mike Hull, principal consultant and water data specialist at AI firm Aiimi.

“It is something that customers move in and out of depending on their circumstances,” he tells Utility Week Innovate, adding that harnessing data effectively and innovating accordingly can help firms establish which customers are vulnerable at a given time and offer appropriate support. “Utilities organisations must seek to innovate customer service solutions to respond to the dynamic nature of vulnerability,” he says.

Amid a host of post-pandemic, economic and environmental factors increasing customer exposure to vulnerability, addressing this need collaboratively is all the more pressing.

“With prices going up faster than wages for the time being, many people are moving into vulnerable categories and suppliers will have far more debt as customers struggle to pay bills,” Paul Linnane, chief data officer at data transfer provider ElectraLink, adds.

“This means customer service has to innovate to increase efficiency and find new models to, firstly, support two-to-three-times more vulnerable customers through the Cost of Living crisis, and, secondly, to anticipate where problems arise for the customer before they happen and then keep costs low to resolve other problems at scale.”

Before pan-utility leaders gather to discuss customer-facing innovation at Utility Week Live on 17 and 18 May, Innovate takes a snapshot of how firms are already harnessing richer data sets, digital tools, and more intelligent analytics and AI to ensure all-encompassing customer support.

  • Find out more about the changing customer of the future, engaging customers on their path to net zero and accelerating change, at Utility Week Live on 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free

Fast facts: The Cost of Living Crisis (Source: Office for National Statistics)

  • 45%
    The percentage of households planning cut their gas or electricity usage to combat living cost increases.
  • 83%
    Percentage of Brits who cited gas and electric bills as the reason behind the increase in their cost of living – behind only food shopping
  • 23%
    Almost a quarter of people found it difficult or very difficult to pay household bills in March – a 17% increase since November.
  • 87%
    Close to nine-in-10 people saw an increase in their cost of living in March – rising from 62% in November.

Digital pathways to a ‘fair’ net zero transition

Northumbrian Water and Newcastle University, National Energy Action, Procter & Gamble and Northern Gas Networks have joined forces to develop a series of integrated digital pathways via their Fair Water Project in an effort to “transform” customer experience and ensure a fair net zero transition for vulnerable customers.

“The idea is that we come up with this menu approach that already exists in healthcare – a hugely complex digital tool that you can log onto and look at different care pathways for different ailments,” Northumbrian’s research and development manager, Chris Jones, says.

Chosen as one of the winners in Ofwat’s £36m Water Breakthrough Challenge, partners will use Northern Gas Networks’ specialist research facility as a testing ground across all aspects of energy consumption, with a sizeable chunk of Ofwat’s funding allocated to exploring both new and existing solutions to populate pathways.

“It’ll be a web portal encapsulating all the knowledge and know-how that we’ve captured through the project, and make that available for anybody to understand their options, technologies and where we think they fit in terms of somebody’s life,” Jones explains.

“The longer term aspiration is a live tool so as new technologies are developed, or as we gain more understanding, we can add to that knowledge base which becomes something that the likes of National Energy Action and utility service providers can tap into and understand what they do to serve particular customers or communities.”

Angela MacOscar, head of innovation at Northumbrian – which serves close to three million people across the north east – adds: “We have really listened to our customers, and we know that more solutions are needed to be digital in order to meet our customers’ needs and expectations.

“We know that sometimes people would rather do things online than actually speak to someone, so we have adapted in order to make this possible.”

  • Expert view: Using data analytics to improve customer service: At a time of upheaval in the retail energy market, world-class customer service has never been so crucial – not only for customer acquisition, retention and return on investment (ROI), but for building relationships with customers at a time when trust is low. Hear more from Electralink’s Paul Linnane here

‘Street-by-street’ fuel poverty visibility

UK Power Networks (UKPN) is harnessing payment and consumption data to bring customers in or at risk of fuel poverty into sharper focus and deliver personalised support via its Social Connect project.

Currently, UKPN works with local partners to support roughly 800,000 vulnerable customers per year, of which 13,000 receive tailored assistance. However, the firm hopes to increase this to 100,000 annually with the help of Energy Systems Catapult and artificial intelligence firm UrbanTide.

To do so, the Social Connect project will harness Data Communications Company system metadata – which contains information including when emergency credit is activated or a prepayment meter is topped up – in tandem with smart meter system data to identify those at risk of fuel poverty and assess the range of situations that can make a household fuel poor.

Combining the Energy Systems Catapult’s experience in analysing data and understanding of vulnerability and fuel poverty with UrbanTide’s uSmart data platform, the end product will be a tool that can predict the prevalence of customers in or at risk of fuel poverty on what UKPN claims is a street-by-street level.

  • Join the discussion around supporting vulnerable customers and how to achieve a “just” transition at Utility Week Live on 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free

Providing PSR data on the doorstep

Developed by Cadent – which transports gas to 11 million customers – Frazer-Nash Consultancy and the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC), the Welfare Decision Tool puts safeguarding data at emergency engineers’ fingertips during their support of vulnerable customers – such as those on the Priority Services Register (PSR).

With Cadent engineers regularly encountering such customers during day-to-day operations, the firm recognised the need to streamline the process of arranging appropriate support on a recurring basis.

Consequently, project partners created a new mobile app to arm engineers with PSR data on the doorstep to enable faster, more consistent, decision making on which products and services can best support a customer across a range of vulnerable circumstances.

The tool also considers external data such as weather forecasts, individual customer needs, and how long the customer is likely to be without gas.

From April 2021, Cadent embarked on a second project phase allowing engineers to both identify best safeguarding provisions and arrange for delivery of products such as heaters and locking cooker valves to customer homes while on visits.

  • Hear more about delivering best in class customer service at Utility Week Live on 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free

Fast facts: utilities and vulnerability (Source: Citizens Advice)

  • 14.5 million
    Predicted £145-a-month energy cost increases in October could mean a quarter of adults, some 14.5 million people, will be unable to afford bills.
  • 83%
    More than eight-in-10 Brits said that they did not think that the government's £200 energy rebate would make a significant difference to their ability to pay energy bills.
  • 1,000
    In February, Citizens Advice advisers supported more than 1,000 people on prepayment heat and energy meters who couldn’t afford to top up.
  • 41%
    A March survey found that 41% of those warning they’ll be pushed into the red in April had already borrowed money to pay for essentials.

Flexible asset income in affordable housing

In an attempt to ensure vulnerable customers aren’t left behind in the net zero transition, UKPN’s Urban Energy Club – a partnership with EDF Energy and charity Repowering London – aims to help those living in affordable social housing own distributed assets and potentially earn from energy flexibility.

Multiple occupancy properties such as blocks of flats are commonplace in urban areas, with many local authorities planning further development to serve the needs of their community. However, according to UKPN, they traditionally shut residents off from energy flexibility and low carbon technologies.

The Urban Energy Club aims to break down these barriers and enable affordable housing residents to use renewable energy at lower cost, as well as provide new income for those who would otherwise not be able to participate in the flexibility market by providing a new commercial model to enable virtual allocation of shared assets.

UKPN is working on the design, development and testing of network-related aspects of a virtual allocated asset system, specifically looking at how customers can choose to use their allocation of a shared asset to provide flexibility to the local electricity network and design a financial incentive suitable for a consumer group living in blocks of flats.

Residents at Elmore House in Brixton, south London, are among the first UK users to take part. While they already had access to electricity generated from solar panels on the block’s roof – which is battery stored and can already be traded between residents – the Urban Energy Club offers flexibility services from their solar panels to respond to the demands of the wider area.

Customer service ‘digital twin’

Northumbrian Water has created what it’s calling a “digital twin” for customer experience to map and predict satisfaction levels and behaviours, as well as understand customer pain points, in near real-time in partnership with AI and data firm Aiimi.

Aiimi has engineered a data infrastructure that draws information from Northumbrian’s customer relationship management and telephony systems alongside direct customer feedback. The result is a platform that allows Northumbrian to react to live data-driven insights, improve customer interactions and predict behaviour based on levels of satisfaction and payment frequency, for example, to ensure that bespoke support considers the extent of customer vulnerability.

“Financial vulnerability increases a customer’s chances of falling into water poverty,” Aiimi’s Mike Hull explains. “The partnership allows Northumbrian Water to leverage Aiimi’s expertise on data to identify those who have fallen into the vulnerable financial bracket.”

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Supporting vulnerable customers and delivering best in class customer service are among the frontline challenges at the heart of Utility Week Live 2022’s live content programme. View the programme.

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