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At Utility Week Live 2018, 20 hackers (made up of software developers, researchers and designers) split up into ten teams and worked for 12 hours straight on how to identify and support customers in vulnerable circumstances.

Working with special advisers from across the industry and with hackathon partners Microsoft and Huntswood, the hackers’ task was to investigate how the imaginative use of existing and new datasets, as well as the creative development of interfaces, can identify vulnerable customers. They also examined ways in which utilities might then be able to better engage with and help those customers, and the results surpassed all expectations. This is what they came up with.

A ‘divide and conquer’ CMS system

The problem: Having vast swathes of historical data but not being able to find or use the right information about a customer – and their preferences and behaviours – at the right time.

How it helps: To better engage with customers, suppliers would benefit hugely from being able to access a single content management system (CMS). This could be shared across the various utility companies used by the individual, and would mean they could open a screen that would immediately tell them key information about that customer. This could include their contact preferences, payment history and behaviours, and any relevant information about their health and wellbeing.

The system could also list the contact details of a nominated person to talk about the account, so that if there was a problem, that person could step in and help on behalf of the customer – this could be a friend, neighbour or even a nominated charity.

The system could include a customer-facing app, which could alleviate call volumes by providing billing information and an interface through which customer and company could communicate without speaking on the phone.
Additionally, the CMS would allow companies to identify when a person’s behaviour had changed, which would allow them to step in and offer help without the customer having to ask. In line with GDPR, a setting is included whereby some information (such as recorded phone calls or information the customer does not want to be shared) would be held only by one utility and not shared across the system, but if the customer were to give permission for this to be shared, it could be done so at the touch of a button.

Three barrier-breaking automation processes

The problem: Customers that either cannot or do not want to communicate with their utility companies. Not all of these customers are necessarily vulnerable, but by nominating a willing third party to manage their communications, there is a conversation established whereby this can be monitored and identified. #

A secondary issue was addressed too, that customers don’t necessarily know (or don’t want to admit) they are falling into vulnerable circumstances.

How it helps: The app automates the process of adding a third party to your account, and it can be in any given language (this was identified as one of the reasons customers are unable to communicate with a utility, and not being able to do so for whatever reason can mean the customer falls unnecessarily into vulnerable circumstances).
The issue of customers not knowing or wanting to admit they may be in vulnerable circumstances was addressed with a second automation process, which focused specifically on billing behaviours. If a customer were to pay a bill late, or even later than they normally do, the app would flag them up as “at risk” to all of their utility companies. This would give them all a chance to step in and help, without having to be approached.

A third module developed by the hackers was designed to tell all a customer’s utility companies their preferred method of communication, without them having to do anything, as it would record their response times to text, email, letter and phone, and automatically default to the preferred path.

A platform that asks, so you don’t have to

The problem: Customers not wanting to inform their utility company of any issues that might affect their circumstances, such as mental health or bereavement.

How it helps: Providing an online platform that allows customers to inform their utility companies of their preferences, without the customer ever having to say they need help. It was identified that being contacted and opting in to say “I would like to receive a service in this way” is far preferable to having to contact a utility company and say “I have this problem, please can you help?”

This is all entirely online, but can also be dictated and presented in braille, and asks questions surrounding preferences in a way that allows the company to communicate with their customer in a way that they would like and understand.

The Bill Box

The problem: Customers falling behind on bills, which is an issue that can quickly spiral out of control, and seem increasingly difficult to manage. This could be due to dementia, or any memory issues.

How it helps: A panel that you can stick on a fridge or wall that displays a calendar month at a time. It shows the user when bills are due to come out, and is linked to their account, so will take the money out automatically, without them having to do anything. As well as showing when the bill is due, it would also show whether it has already been paid or not.
The panel could come as part of the initial offer when signing up to a utility company, but customers could also opt in at a later date. It is designed to be larger, clearer and simpler than a smartphone or computer.

A bespoke central messaging system

The problem: Strained or nonexistent customer relations between utility companies and customers in vulnerable circumstances.

How it helps: A platform that offers bespoke customer communications. By signing up via a one-word text (or email or phone call – which can be done by a third party if required), local updates are sent out, such as leaks or streetworks. This can be sent however the customer wishes, such as vocalised message for blind users, or via a nominated person for those who can’t or don’t want to use their phone or computer.

The Digital Doorway Service

The problem: Making sure vulnerable customers feel confident about who is outside their door. Research indicates there is an issue surrounding utilities engineers and vulnerable customers, in as much as doorbells will go unanswered when the customer isn’t confident about who is at the door.

The second problem addressed here is that only 18 per cent of known vulnerable users are signed up to the vulnerable services register and able to access the help and advice that affords them.

How it helps: When an engineer is at the door, he will scan his ID. This will tell the company his GPS location, and send an alert to the customer the other side of the door confirming that he is who he claims to be. They will receive it via the app, but this can be sent in any format required. If needed or wanted, a text alert can also be set up to a friend, carer or family member to let them know the engineer is there.

Additionally, the idea is that the service incentivises people to sign up to the vulnerable services register because they are automatically enrolled to the digital doorway service as soon as they’re identified as being on the register.


The problem: For the financially vulnerable, paying bills can seem daunting or indeed impossible. If a customer is unable to pay a bill and doesn’t let anyone know, they receive successive reminders, by which time they have fallen much further behind with their payments.

How it helps: The service creates a personalised payment plan for each individual customer, and means they don’t have to speak to anyone on the phone. Those on the vulnerable services register receive a different service offering them more ways to pay, reminding them when this is about to happen (in a non-confrontational way), and letting them see their whole payment plan whenever they want. Vulnerability is never mentioned in the app, so there is no stigma involved.
Consumers can also receive their monthly bill, and reply to the company instantly through the app to tell them they may struggle, or how much they can afford to pay – this can then be approved via the app, or the company can choose to get in touch.

A live billing aid

The problem: According to a recent article by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), most customers who are late or unable to pay their bills are aged between 25 and 34. But current apps and statements only tell you about what you have already paid, so will only tell you about a problem that’s already happened.

How it helps: Using open banking (a recent EU directive whereby FCA-approved companies are allowed access to all your banking data), the system works out which tariffs are best suited to each individual based on their financial history. Vulnerability markers can be assessed through the system, and customers can be offered products and services that are best suited to their needs.

The idea is to be a live version of a credit check, able to detect a billing problem before it happens. The system can also access smart meters and advise on how energy could be used in a more cost effective way.
It also allows for a utility savings point – whereby on request, money can be automatically taken out on payday to fund utility bills, so when the bill comes there will already be money set aside for it.

A risk assessment tool

The problem: A lack of support for customers who may be at risk of falling into vulnerable circumstances.

How it helps: The system records moods in all contact with the utility – it will therefore be able to detect if someone who is normally upbeat has become less so. It also notes frequency of contact, which if regular or repeated could be a question of dementia, for example. Energy usage trends will also be taken into consideration through smart meter integration. All these are compiled into an aggregate picture, and subsequent ratings are given for financial vulnerability, and also vulnerability in terms of health and wellbeing. This will tell the utility company as early as possible that there might be a problem, and action needs to be taken.

A gas-check button

The problem: A lack of support for anyone who isn’t comfortable with screen-based interactions.
How it helps: The wi-fi-connected button is installed in the home, and will glow red when a gas check is required. When the user presses the button, an engineer will be scheduled to visit the next day. When the engineer visits, he takes photographs of each relevant appliance, which updates with brand, model, age, etc. The button is loaded with those appliances and lights up at times relevant to each appliance.

The button can also be synced to an app, so can identify when the engineer is at the door.

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