Comment: Going the extra mile for the vulnerable customer
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.
- Comment: What could retail competition do for customers? Domestic retail competition could provide an opportunity to look again at how we determine the price of water to the... Read More >
- Data transformation - delivering for stakeholders The complexity of managing a 21st century utility means a simplified, integrated approach to data and IT. Sharing case... Read More >
- GIS is all in the mind Better asset data will be key as the industry strives to keep customer bills down. But can the mindset of field workers... Read More >
- Managing infrastructure presents a growing digital challenge Mark Kaney, director of asset management at Sweco UK, calls for the water industry to support a deeper commitment to data... Read More >
- Comment: The future of asset planning in a data-driven world United Utilities' use of modelling software to analyse and predict deterioration in its sewer network is an example of the... Read More >
- Operational Records Key for WWTPs' Long-Term Goals Good data on the performance of treatment plants is important not only for meeting quality standards in the present, but in... Read More >
- Comment: Shining a light on dark data Water companies already have the data to solve many of their most problematic issues - they just have to know where to... Read More >
- Water companies and BIM: realising the potential The utilities sector has lagged behind in implementing BIM, and has yet to fully realise its potential for maintenance as... Read More >