Utility Week’s Consumer Vulnerability & Debt conference brought together companies, regulators and stakeholders to discuss how best to support those who need it most – and how Covid has changed the approaches taken. James Wallin discusses some key takeaways.

“This is new and it’s not where people expect to be. They haven’t seen the leaflets you’ve sent out to vulnerable people because they weren’t.”

Duncan McCombie, customer engagement group chair at Western Power Distribution, was one of several speakers who stressed the challenges for utilities in responding to transient vulnerability.

The conference, taking place virtually at the start of December, heard accounts from companies across the sector of carefully crafted vulnerability strategies thrown into disarray by the impact of Covid-19.

McCombie said utilities needed to look beyond their processes to see what really works for consumers. “Vulnerability can be permanent or transient, complex or specific. That’s why a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided,” he said.

“You may see yourself as an engineering or an energy business but customers are at the heart of everything you do. You need those customers and you need to engage with them. So you should be designing your approach with householders and not for them. “

Vulnerability needs to be part of companies’ DNA, not a regulatory tick box.”

It was also a theme taken up by the regulators, with Meghna Tewari, Ofgem’s head of vulnerability and consumer policy, saying the uncertainty created by the pandemic highlighted the importance of utilities having clear signposts to available support.

She pointed out that while the boundaries of vulnerability had been stretched far beyond its previous definition, there was still evidence of which groups were most at risk, including those on zero-hours contracts and some members of certain communities, including BAME.

Ofwat’s customer policy lead, Andrew Lincoln, cited research that water companies are not utilising the data gathered from vulnerable customers to identify other sub-sets at risk and to tailor support packages.

However, both regulators praised the early response of their respective industries, with Lincoln pointing to the 80,000 water customers offered payment referrals so far.

Collaboration was another watchword of the conference, with many companies discussing the successful partnerships they had forged, or strengthened, during the pandemic.

Andy Clowes, head of customer experience and strategy at South East Water, talked about the 600 third sector partners his firm engages with.

He said: “Customers often use the third sector as their partner of choice. Unless we work with the third sector in a really constructive way then we are really going to struggle to increase our customers’ awareness level of the support we and other companies can offer.”

Talk of partnerships inevitably led to debate over the need for shared priority services registers (PSRs). While clearly an advocate for this, Clowes also highlighted research showing a nervousness among the public as to how their data is used.

Transparency must be paramount, he said, adding: “We have to be clear about what we will and won’t do with people’s data.”

Thames Water’s lead on vulnerability strategy, Peter Cotton, laid out the steps his company had taken to change the way in which it adds people to its PSR and the knock-on effect on data-sharing.

In September Thames started registering customers under “substantial public interest”, allowing third parties such as relatives, carers and charities to add someone on their behalf. Cotton said this is now transforming how Thames can work with its partners.

He gave the example of the London Fire Brigade, where an agreement in principle is now in place to share data on high-risk households, with 3,000 people a month expected to be added to Thames’ PSR when the agreement begins in February. Cotton said Thames had always collaborated closely with the fire brigade but the need for a customer’s explicit consent to sign up to the register had always stood in the way of data-sharing.

Ultimately much progress on improving vulnerable customer data and sharing information with partners will come down to trust. Many speakers were open about the fact that utilities currently lag behind some other industries on this metric.

However, there was widespread optimism that the evolving relationship between customers and the providers of lifeline services can build a new era of confidence.

As Cotton put it: “The more we break down barriers and act as a local company, the better.”