It’s been two years since the water and energy industries started to publicly explore the benefits of sharing data on vulnerable customers as a way to improve services.

Regulators Ofgem, Ofwat and the UK Regulators’ Network published a report in October 2017 calling for greater cross-sector collaboration and the sharing of non-financial vulnerability data through the Priority Service Register (PSR). Energy and water companies are obliged to roll out the programme next spring after a series of trials.

The PSR is a free service provided by suppliers, which vulnerable customers can sign up to receive various services such as advance notice of planned power cuts. Up until this point, each utility held its own register.

United Utilities (UU) and Electricity North West (ENW) have been conducting one of those trails and explain about what they’ve learnt from the pilot.  ENW will share its experience at a webinar on 28 November at 11 am. The webinar will look at how digital experience of vulnerable customers can be improved.

How did the pilot work in practice?

Running over a 14-week period between February and April 2018, the companies conducted a two-way data-sharing pilot in which they gained explicit consent from their mutual customers to share their PSR data.

Explaining the mechanics of the pilot, ENW’s customer director, Stephanie Trubshaw says: “We started off making sure we did everything simply, so we didn’t worry about the existing data we had – we just dealt with new customers. So, when we or UU were registering a new customer, we would offer to register them on both [PSRs].”

This data and the customer’s consent would then be recorded as well as being shared with their suppliers, subject to the customer’s consent. During this process they confirmed the preferred method and time of contact with customers.

“We [ENW and UU] had regular weekly meetings to understand the challenges we were facing, such as how people recorded their date or their name, to make sure we could actually use the data in a specific format,” Trubshaw adds.

This led the teams to ensure that full names were taken from customers, rather than abbreviated versions, as well as the customer’s whole address. Though a seemingly small step, this was critical, since it meant the data was taken down by both companies in the same format and could therefore be used and shared effectively.

“By getting the correct matching data, we could just load it into the databases to prevent manual handling or double entry, which makes a difference when you get into higher volumes.”

What was the customer response?

“The first few months, the uptake was very mixed,” says Trubshaw. “Customers were fine with what we were offering but they weren’t as sure of the benefits of the water [PSR] and this was because our agents probably weren’t skilled enough.”

As a result, both companies trained their agents in the trial to understand the benefits of cross-referencing the datasets. This would allow them to fully explain these benefits to customers. These would include a company who had identified a customer vulnerability being able to share it through the PSR, resulting in a coordinated and more efficient response that could ultimately benefit both customer and company.

Advantages for the customer really come to the fore when considering extreme weather events. As UU customer and people director Louise Beardmore notes: “When it comes to floods, we are responding as multiple agencies at the same time. If you think of the flooding we’ve had recently in the North West, it means that United Utilities and Electricity North West are responding together.

“We know which customers need our help and support, so when it comes to restoring the electricity supply or water supply, we know where those customers are.”

Trubshaw says that after carrying out the training, they saw a notable increase in registrations. Customer uptake increased to about 85 per cent, from 42 per cent when they started in the first week. By the end of March 2018, she said about 4,500 customers had agreed to having their data used by both parties.

What are the lessons learned?

Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned to date is a company’s ability to have “the human touch” in order to maintain customer confidence during this process.

Beardmore explains: “One of the biggest areas of learning is that you need to make sure your staff are properly trained to be able to communicate the benefits of data sharing and the benefits they will see from being on someone else’s PSR.

“You’ve got to be very confident about how the data is going to be used and for what purpose because this is about trust for customers, so how their data is exchanged and stored is very important.”

An example of this, she says, is telling the customer that you are using the data to tailor the support provided by both companies such as making sure a blind customer is registered as in need of a braille bill at the same time as being clear the data will not be used for marketing or debt collection.

To this Trubshaw adds that it is also really important that your staff feel comfortable with the services both companies are offering so they can comfortably and convincingly promote it. She advises companies to have specialists to head the programme and to train specific teams of between 10-12 agents to start with, to ensure processes are tested before being rolled out more widely.

“Realistically it’s better to start off with a specific group to ensure you’re doing it on a scale that you can learn from. Ensuring that you have good project management, with follow up calls the next day to cross-reference and check what happened is also really key to ensuring that you are delivering on what people are receiving at the other end.”

There is a consensus that the scale of rolling out the nationwide project, coordination between the many organisations that are sharing data will undoubtedly be a challenge. The good news is that the technology for data sharing is not proving to be an issue; described by one source within the industry as “straightforward”.

But companies need to be wary of balancing both the need to have the “human touch” with the necessity of being rigid and accurate when gathering volume data at this scale. Staff training is therefore essential to the success of a nationwide rollout.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the latest edition of Utility Week’s Flex supplement.