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Water and energy companies must look to other sectors, such as financial services, to help improve advice and signpost support for customers struggling to pay their bills, according to a debt advice expert.

Speaking at a roundtable session at Utility Week Live, they said that the water sector often feels more proactive than energy on the issue of vulnerability, but insisted that more work needs to be done across all utilities to ensure that customers know what financial aid is available.

“Utilities seem quite far behind when it comes to customer vulnerability. Financial services, for example, is much further ahead. That is probably driven by how strong regulation has been in that space,” they said.

“There is a real lack of awareness when it comes to the sort of advice, services and support that is available. It can be really challenging for customers. There is a lot of work that we need to do collaboratively to raise awareness of the support that is out there.”

The session – Improving the billing and payment experience for customers – convened industry leaders at Utility Week Live to explore evolving customer needs and establish how organisations should adapt to keep pace.

Unsurprisingly, the worsening cost of living crisis was top of the agenda.

Last month, UK inflation hit a 40-year high of 9% as energy costs soared for millions of billpayers, many of whom are experiencing vulnerability for the first time.

“We are seeing people who are already vulnerable becoming more vulnerable, and people who were not experiencing vulnerability who are now experiencing it for the first time,” said one attendee. “It is often harder for the latter to come forward and ask for help. They often can’t find the words to even say it. They don’t know the organisations that can support them.”

There was agreement from all attendees that utilities must also maintain a flexible approach to engagement with customers – ensuring that both digital and human channels are available.

“It’s all about choice and empowering customers to choose which channel is right for them – and that might shift and change over time. There are some customers that might find it easier to engage with that digital journey because they want that level of anonymity. But there are some really vulnerable people who need someone to go through everything with them in detail,” explained one attendee.

“It’s about collaboration and working with other partners. It’s recognising what customers need and signposting them to the right support.”

To read more about the importance of engaging with customers effectively and sensitively, click here to read a recent Utility Week report on the opportunities and challenges for utilities as they seek to reach out to customers at a time of unprecedented volatility.