Utilities and mental health

It is essential to have dedicated customer service teams trained to deal with the particular need of vulnerable customers with sometimes crippling mental health issues. Kate McAllister writes.

Imagine that you are a customer service call handler in a call centre for a major energy supplier. You are speaking with a distressed customer who is insistent that her gas meter has been tampered with and that your company is surveilling her through it. She is distressed and refusing to pay her bill. Another customer is confused, has angry outbursts, and doesn’t remember speaking with your team yesterday. How would you react?

Every year, one in four British people are diagnosed with a mental health condition. The large energy companies have five million customers. In the UK, 850,000 people have dementia, and with our ageing population this will rise to one million by 2025. Over a lifetime, around three people in 100 will experience schizophrenia, and shockingly, suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.

Staff in essential services deal with people from all sections of society and are regularly faced with customers who present mental health issues such as paranoid delusions or dementia, and even suicidal thoughts. While escalation teams are dedicated to providing excellent customer service in tough circumstances, our research shows they often do not have the skills, knowledge or confidence to navigate these conversations. The profound effects on the supplier-customer relationship that can result means that their wellbeing suffers, that they are less likely to open bills, less likely to contact their supplier and more likely to regard their supplier as hostile.

The importance of communication

The major barrier to good customer service is understanding of the customer’s situation and tailoring communication accordingly. Many working in the sector will admit that transparent communication can be an issue for all customers, and not just those who are vulnerable.

As one non-vulnerable customer said in Ofgem’s 2013 Vulnerable Consumers and the Priority Services Register report: “The information you get is full of jargon and is not user-friendly. I think they make it complex.”

Problems such as this are magnified for people who have a mental health issue that affects their thinking. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism and dementia are all linked to lower cognitive function and difficulties with comprehending information. Stress associated with delayed bills and problems understanding language compound this to make seemingly simple exchanges extremely difficult, resulting in escalation calls lasting up to two hours, distressed staff, unpaid bills, repeat calls, and often upset customers.

The smart meter era

If all goes to plan, all UK homes and small businesses will have smart meters installed by 2020. As the market moves towards smart metering, many of these communication problems will be overcome with a streamlined process and reduced need for estimated bills. This will also be key in the smart meter age. The Smart Metering Installation Code of Practice provides a blueprint for installing smart meters and identifying customers with additional needs. However, for some customers, the very process of smart metering will be a hurdle in itself.

For many with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety disorders, having engineers visit at home may be at best unwanted and at worst something to actively avoid. In addition to this, for people with paranoid delusions or schizophrenia, having an automated meter and a house inspection may make their symptoms worse, and lead to a withdrawal from the process entirely. While vulnerable customers are arguably those who would best be served by smart metering, the approach to installation and monitoring should be thoughtfully planned and executed to ensure all customers reap the benefits.

Overcoming the hurdles

Encouragingly, there is a tangible cultural shift in the way that utility suppliers and large public-facing organisations in general are approaching customers with mental health needs, with many companies now having dedicated vulnerability teams, and moves to ensure better training of staff in customer-facing roles. Ofgem outlined in 2013 that every contact counts. A follow-up progress report in September 2015 reported significant improvement in the approaches to vulnerable customers, engagement with third party organisations, and increased investment in staff training.

Understanding more about customers can only be of benefit to helping them get the best service, yet basic knowledge surrounding mental health is generally poor. How many of us, for example, mistake schizophrenia as a condition of split personalities, or think that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are one and the same? Good training will provide staff with the practical skills to guide a conversation to a successful conclusion, all the while reminding staff that their role is not to act as a proxy psychiatrist.

As the frontline staff act as the face and voice of the company, it is vital to enable them to have the right communication skills set as well as the practical strategies tailored to their own customer base. A more informed staff will reduce time wasted, lower staff burden, and ultimately, improve customer satisfaction and retention. As World Mental Health Day passed on 10 October, it is timely for the utility sector to really pay attention to how we provide the best customer experience for our most vulnerable customers.
Kate McAllister, co-founder, The Good Thinking Company