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A 5-point-plan to improve outcomes for vulnerable customers

Regulators across sectors are demanding businesses work better for vulnerable people – particularly within utilities.

According to regulator Ofgem, “Energy is changing, and it is expected that digitalisation, decarbonisation and decentralisation are likely to radically change the way consumers interact with their energy suppliers.

“We are determined that everyone is able to benefit from these changes and are protected, particularly those least able to look after themselves,” Ofgem added.

To set its strategic goals for customers in vulnerable situations, Ofgem has outlined five key areas with outcomes that it wants the energy industry to focus on.

Here, we look at those areas from a digital perspective, across utilities.

Improving identification of vulnerability and smart use of data

Leveraging insights across legacy technology and data silos has long challenged utilities companies.

The inability to bring separate clusters of data together prevents companies from being able to form a single view of the customer across channels and brands.

Customer service staff for instance are specially trained to identify customers who might be in vulnerable circumstances, and draw information from customers that can enable the business to better serve them. But the information collected in contact centres is rarely pushed through to digital platforms, where it could be used to build online customer profiles and tailor digital journeys.

Companies need to ensure their CRM system can inform, and be informed by, other systems and channels. Integrating it into wider customer engagement tools will bring the various pieces of customer information together, even if that data resides outside of the CRM.

Companies can then create digital experiences that are contextually relevant to a customer’s circumstances.

Supporting those struggling with their bills

Customers have faced real-term price increases of 28% in gas, 37% in electricity and 6% in water since 2007.

There’s an opportunity to make better use of technology to reduce cost to serve, so those savings can be passed on to customers.

The utilities industry has been slower than most at shifting things to digital and enabling self-serve. Companies are still heavily reliant on traditional channels like the contact centre and post, but these are costly to operate.

Utilities need to identify new processes and tasks which lend themselves well to digital; that will also allow human agents in contact centres to spend more time on higher value customer interactions.

Like what?

Last year, we implemented a bespoke leak reporting form for a utilities company. It’s designed to shift volume away from the call centre by allowing customers to check for existing leaks – reducing duplicate online submissions. This saves them operational costs through manual reconciliation too.

More recently, we helped another utilities customer digitise its connections process; customers can now apply for new power connections, alterations and disconnections online. We integrated OpenLayers mapping technology with its Episerver platform to allow customers to sketch their power supply requirements on an ordinate map. This was formerly a paper-based application process.

Automating processes like this saves back-office costs, whilst improving customer experience.

Driving significant improvements in customer service for vulnerable groups

Customer service is increasingly delivered on digital channels, yet customer journeys for those seeking extra support are often inflexible and fragmented.

When we spoke to Mark at StepChange, he said, “One of the things that I've been trying to address with the utilities companies that I work with, is that everything is geared around picking up the phone. But if you look at their customer acquisition; they’ll have an online platform for people to sign-up on, arrangements with multiple switching websites, then once you’re a customer, there’s usually an app for you to manage your account from.

“All of that exists from a marketing perspective, yet if you miss a payment, you drop straight into their telephone service. And that's usually the beginning, middle and end of collections - it's all telephone activity.

“It’s even more problematic for people dealing with multiple vulnerabilities. If someone has a hearing or speech impairment, they’re really going to struggle over the phone.”   

Digital channels can help people communicate without feeling put under pressure, and allow them to overcome particular challenges.

Someone with a speech impairment will have a much smoother experience engaging via chat rather than voice. Much like someone who is blind or low vision will have an easier time using voice channels rather than chat.

Different channels will present different opportunities to meet people’s needs. Opening up the channels to engagement helps to make digital more inclusive to a wider range of customers – and lessens the burden on the contact centre.

Encouraging positive and inclusive innovation

In the UK there are:

  • 11 million people living with a mental or physical disability
  • 3 million people who are colour blind
  • 2 million people with sight loss

The digital customer experience provided to such segments is rarely prioritised, because they typically represent a small portion of a companies’ overall customer base. 

But by designing experiences for someone with a permanent disability, someone with a situational limitation can also benefit.

permanent disabilities and situational limitations

Being mindful of the continuum from permanent disabilities to situational impairments helps us rethink how our digital experiences can scale to more people in new ways, making them more accessible to everyone.

This way of thinking can help companies build a business case to improve accessibility - and put it firmly on the agenda.

Learn how to create inclusive digital experiences in our blog.

Working with partners to tackle issues that cut across multiple sectors

Accessibility is one such issue. As we heard in our interview with Liz Bates, former CEO of Deafblind UK: “Different websites have different accessibility standards. All websites are supposed to be accessible, but the quality of accessibility varies.

The quality of accessibility can be heavily impacted by a range of things, from the back-end to the front-end. It’s a responsibility that spans multiple parties. Content can affect the quality of accessibility – and that in itself will go through multiple departments like marketing, legal and compliance.

Digital agencies need to play a greater role in helping companies create digital experiences which are easy to use and accessible - ultimately benefiting all customers.  

Digital transformation projects will have a number of different stakeholders involved – each with their own objectives and perspectives – and it’s the role of the agency to guide and challenge the customer.

Agencies need to do better at advising companies as to the common accessibility challenges different customer groups face, and challenge any requirements that impacts the experience for those groups; playing those requirements back to the client and clearly articulating why it would be detrimental to the experience.

As utilities are repeatedly being asked to look outwards and take inspiration from customer experience leaders in other sectors – agencies can bring their insight and experience here too.

Stay tuned for the release of our vulnerable customer white paper!