Vulnerable customers are being left to struggle alone with smart devices

The support being given to vulnerable customers in the smart meter rollout is insufficient and inconsistent, Citizens Advice has warned.

A new report from the consumer champion shows that just three in 10 suppliers provide one-to-one support for vulnerable customers, including those with physical or mental disabilities or learning difficulties, after installing smart meters in their properties.

Only one supplier has committed to appointing a single staff member to help a vulnerable customer through their smart adoption journey.

Victoria MacGregor, director of energy at Citizens Advice, said the charity is “concerned” about the findings as they could lead to vulnerable customers missing out on smart benefits. 

Lack of focussed support for certain classes of vulnerability could also lead to individuals becoming distressed and confused by their new technology, or the installation process, the report points out.

“We want the government to make it a requirement for all energy suppliers to provide some ongoing support to vulnerable customers once their smart meter is installed,” MacGregor commented.

The report, Smart Support, recognises islands of good practice among suppliers in providing tailored assistance to vulnerable customers, but concludes that industry standards are inconsistent and that aspirations to provide support which goes beyond the requirements of the Smart Meter Installation Code of Practice, need to be raised across the board.

In addition to recommending new standards for post-installation support for vulnerable customers, Citizens Advice has called for more companies to conduct gap analysis in their definitions of vulnerability – especially those relating to learning difficulties, customers living in the private rented sector and customers lacking internet access.

Again, just three of the suppliers examined in the research showed that they have broadened their definition of vulnerability for the purposes of the rollout.

Furthermore, just one supplier is considering energy efficiency as an indicator of vulnerability. This is despite the fact that one in five people who live in homes with the worst energy efficiency ratings find it difficult to afford heating their homes, according to Citizens Advice.

More positively, Citizens Advice has found that all suppliers are offering, or plan to offer, accessible in home displays to support smart meter benefits for those with disabilities such as visual impairment. And 90 per cent of the market do have a specific targeting strategy for vulnerable customers connected to their smart deployment plans.

MacGregor said it is “encouraging” that “some suppliers are proactively identifying and helping vulnerable customers who may find the new technology particularly challenging, for example by arranging follow up contact to ensure they are getting the best from their new device.”

But she cautioned that “As the pace of the smart meter rollout increases this year, more people will need extra support to benefit from this new technology”.

On the back of its research, Citizens Advice has made a range of recommendations for governed and industry action to ensure a good smart metering experience for vulnerable customers.

In addition to asking for government to establish industry-wide standards for vulnerable customer support, it has called for:

  • Government to monitor support for vulnerable consumers in the roll-out
  • Industry to collectively develop techniques for the use of smart data to identify households in need of extra support with using their smart meter, reducing consumption or staying on supply
  • Industry to review engagement communication to ensure it does not put pressure on consumers to have a smart meter, with particular regard for vulnerable consumers more likely to suffer confusion or anxiety in the process. This should include making information regarding consumers’ rights readily available.
  • All suppliers to guarantee that no vulnerable consumer be left without means to cook or heat their home should a gas appliance be condemned

Citizens Advice is not only concerned about the experience of vulnerable customers during the smart rollout.

Last week it highlighted a sharp increase in complaints relating to billing and usage, as well as a range of other issues, from early smart meter adopters.

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