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Comment: Going the extra mile for the vulnerable customer

Sue Lindsay

Head of Customer Relations, Wessex Water

With the industry challenged to do more for customers in vulnerable circumstances, Sue Lindsay explains how Wessex Water is helping those customers who need extra consideration

Ofwat’s Vulnerability Focus report, published in February, showed a big increase in support across the industry for customers who are in difficult or challenging circumstances.

For us, customers are always at the heart of what we do. We appreciate that anyone can become vulnerable at any time, and it can have short or long term effects.

The key area for us is helping those people who often, through no fault of their own, are struggling with issues that are beyond their control. This could be due to lower levels of literacy, illness, unemployment or simply a sudden change in circumstances such as bereavement or divorce. They need extra care and consideration – which is where our staff hold the key.

We encourage our staff to go the extra mile for customers, and we give them the confidence to think outside the box and move away from the ‘computer says no’ approach.

In addition, we work with charities to train our staff to better identify signs of mental illness or financial difficulties, skills that are important.

And when it comes to written material for customers, we try to strip it back into plain English to ensure it’s clear and easy to understand with very simple calls for action.

Nobody wants to feel like they are being judged, and we’ve had some very touching feedback from people thanking us for helping to get their lives back in order. Simple as it sounds, our staff are always encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of the person at the other end of the phone or who they meet face-to-face when out and about.

Having the right staff with the right skills, confidence and awareness to deal with often quite complex situations is extremely important – if you get all of this right, vulnerability effectively takes care of itself.

Helping those in financial distress

We were the first in the industry to launch a social tariff, and we now have a raft of measures to help customers afford their ongoing charges, repay their debt and reduce their water and energy use.

Our tailored assistance programme (TAP) offers tailored solutions which meet the customers’ individual financial circumstances, and we deliver this support by partnering with a range of debt advice organisations – including Citizen’s Advice, StepChange and National Debtline.

We are also working hard to promote TAP and increase the numbers on our schemes by extending our range of partners outside of the debt advice sector, including local councils, housing associations and foodbanks and getting out and about in the community to reach out to these customers rather than waiting for them to get in touch.

In April we launched a new initiative to help customers who receive Pension Credit because, despite our efforts to engage, we felt that older people on low incomes were under-represented.

Anyone receiving the benefit is eligible for a 20% discount on their bills – less than on our flagship Assist tariff but, crucially, available to a much larger community of potentially around 80,000 people.

We believe low income pensioners often suffer in silence, perhaps going without because they are desperate to pay their bills. They get help elsewhere with travel, eye care and energy bills but not for water – and this didn’t feel right.

Caring for customers of all ages will always be our number one priority, and treating and valuing them all as individuals is the only way for us to go.

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