5 ways digital can help support vulnerable customers during the cost-of-living crisis
How NOT to manage vulnerable customers
An undercover reporter from The Times recently reported that British Gas routinely sends debt collectors to break into customers’ homes and force-fit prepayment meters, even when they are known to have extreme vulnerabilities.
According to The Times article, households are now typically spending about £1,200 more per year for gas and electricity, compared with prices before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With all customers being affected by these sharp price increases, the immediate attention of service providers needs to turn to those who are vulnerable and require the most support.
Since the controversy emerged, British Gas has suspended the practice of force-fitting prepayment meters and has begun an investigation into the “deeply concerning” findings but these horror stories certainly raised concerns about the right and the wrong way for service providers to deal with the increasing number of customers who are struggling to pay their bills.
In a BBC article reporting on the same issue, one of the key points made is that energy firms are required to have exhausted all other options before installing a prepayment meter, and should not force the installation of these more expensive solutions for those “in the most vulnerable situations”.
Two questions that service providers need to ask themselves are therefore:
- Have we exhausted all other options to support customers with their arrears?
- Do we know which customers are “in the most vulnerable situations”?
Regulators taking steps to enforce appropriate support for vulnerable customers
The good news in the UK is that regulators are taking steps to have a more unified view of the problem with both Ofgem, the UK Energy sector regulator and Ofwat, the UK Water sector regulator requiring that firms maintain the necessary levels of performance monitoring of the Priority Services Register – a free support service that makes sure extra help is available to people in vulnerable situations.
In the current period, the Priority Service Register (PSR) performance commitment requires companies to meet the following key objectives:
- Attempt to contact 90% of households that are currently on the PSR
- Achieve actual contact with 35% of the households that are on the PSR
There are similar regulatory steps being taken in the financial services sector which we wrote about in our recent blog ‘The role of Digital in addressing the Consumer Duty’. In that article, we outlined how the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is introducing a new regulation on the 31st of July to ensure that financial firms provide the required support to the 7.8 million (and growing) people in the UK that are finding it difficult to keep up with their bills. The objective of the new ‘Consumer Duty’ regulation is to “set higher expectations for the standard of care that firms provide to consumers.”
The above evidence indicates that the regulators in these key service sectors are taking steps to ensure that service providers have the necessary supports in place for those who need it. However, the reality on the ground is that many companies are struggling to quickly adapt their existing systems and processes, leading in some cases to the type of horror stories uncovered by The Times.
So what needs to be done? In this blog post we thought we would highlight 5 key hurdles that organisations face in supporting vulnerable customers and present our thoughts on how digital can play a role in addressing those challenges.
5 challenges organisations face in understanding the needs of vulnerable customers
1. Eligibility Criteria: Determining who qualifies for “vulnerable status” can be difficult, as it depends on specific criteria such as age, health status, and household composition. Typically there is a high level of engagement required and may require the supply of supporting documentation.
2. Data Quality: Ensuring that the data on the vulnerable person is accurate and up-to-date is important, but can be a challenge, especially if customers do not inform the company of changes to their circumstances.
3. Communication: It is critical that service providers can communicate effectively with vulnerable customers and it can be difficult to ensure that they understand how to register for support, especially for those customers that may have limited access to information. It is also essential to ensure that all communications are sent via the customer’s preferred method of communication, whether that be post, email or SMS.
4. Resources: Providing additional support to customers who have been flagged as vulnerable requires additional investment in both the staffing and the technology platforms required to engage with customers and monitor the success of care programmes.
5. Measuring Success: Regulations like the PSR have introduced the requirement that service providers can provide evidence of the success of their engagement strategies and can assess the impact on vulnerable customers. The data collected can then be used to improve engagement and service delivery.
Digital Innovation to support vulnerable customers
- SMART Webforms – One of the key challenges highlighted above was the need for service providers to have accurate and up-to-date data on their customers and a key element of any digital strategy is to provide customers with pre-populated, mobile responsive webforms for data collection and validation. We use the SMART acronym to describe the attributes that we believe are critical for all webforms – as they need to be Secure, Measurable, Automated, Responsive and Targeted. Well-designed, dynamic webforms enable organisations to combine high levels of customer engagement and improved operational efficiency in order to support services at scale. Webforms are the perfect way of presenting information that the service provider already has on the customer (via data feeds from the core systems), whilst requesting customers to update or add new information – the use case relevant to vulnerable customer engagement is determining vulnerable status eligibility and ensuring all data is up-to-date and accurate.
- Automated Multi-channel Communications – While there are numerous ways to communicate with customers, experience tells us that Email and SMS can be the most effective in terms of driving engagement. Certain customers however may still prefer a physical letter – particularly those deemed to be vulnerable based on their age, disability, health conditions or financial status. At times of uncertainty, informing customers of regulatory changes, price increases or anything that might impact their service is important and therefore, standard “batch & blast” communications may not suffice. Particularly when a response is required from the customer it may be necessary to have automated reminders go out on a regular basis and potentially via more than one channel.
- Printed letters to include QR codes – As noted above, some customers may prefer to receive a physical letter, meaning organisations require a single platform for multi-channel communication – especially when time is of the essence to quickly issue updates or requests for more information per the objectives set out by sector regulators. The Which50 platform provides organisations with the ability to easily design hyper-personalised digital communications – but can also go one step further by offering the ability to create fully branded and personalised print-ready eDocuments that can be sent to an internal or external print provider. What differentiates these Which50 eDocuments is that each printed letter can contain a personalised QR code to offer customers a route to digital engagement if they so wish.
QR Code with link to Which50 Webform
- Native Reporting Capabilities – Having a centralised platform with built-in Analytics can provide internal teams with detailed visibility across all of their communication campaigns in one place, in real-time, and across all of the different channels. This allows the service provider to efficiently measure customer engagement with comparison reports across all of their digital activities. This is particularly important from a regulatory perspective with the emergence of standards such as the Priority Service Register and the Consumer Duty that require service providers to have a detailed log of performance and provide evidence that they are meeting the objectives set by the regulators.
Example of Evidence Gathering for PSR
Over the coming months, as the challenging economic times continue to wreak havoc on our everyday lives, service providers must continue to serve their customers in a responsible manner. In particular, people categorised as vulnerable due to age, disability, health conditions or financial status require continual support to manage the impact of the rapid price hikes for essential services.
Organisations are now required to provide evidence that they are taking vulnerable customers’ best interests into consideration and must act quickly to roll out a clear strategy to understand the status of the customer and to address their different needs and circumstances. Effective digital & print communications (via the customer’s preferred channel) are crucial to ensure those impacted are supported and kept updated at all times.
If you would like to find out how the Which50 platform can transform your digital journeys and help you to support your vulnerable customers please fill out the form below to receive our bi-monthly newsletter or contact us for more information.