On the 5th July I joined a host of utility companies and suppliers for the Utility Week Consumer Vulnerability conference at 99 City Road, London. The event was attended by a range of organisations and industry regulators including OFWAT, Bristol Energy, Affinity Water, British Gas, Energy UK and Npower to name but a few.
The day began with an opening statement from Ellen Bennet editor for Utility Week explaining the need for the conference “ As more customers than ever before find themselves in vulnerable situations or circumstance, the UK’s utilities stand ready and willing to help. But getting that message across to the customers that need it, when they need it, is not always easy. And it’s not just about outwards communications – behind the scenes, the challenges of data-sharing have become even more complex with the introduction of GDPR”.
With consumer vulnerability a hot topic at present with regulators such as The FCA, OFWAT, OFGEM and OFCOM all shining a particularly bright light on the area, utility companies are having to devote greater commitment and dedication to approaching vulnerability recognition within their collections strategies and arrears management.
Innovation & collaboration across the sector
Innovation and collaboration across the utility sector was an area that provoked lengthy discussion. Some felt they were lagging as a sector in this area compared to others, and the need to embrace and move with the fast paced technological changes that are somewhat transforming sectors such as banking needed to be addressed. With the latest transformational technologies making big waves in other sectors it was acknowledged by some that utilities also needed to join the digital revolution in order to maximise efficiencies and scope out vulnerability recognition. However, the perceived costs, internal re-structuring associated with such extensive changes and the question of how to begin this approach were all points raising concern.
Data Sharing and vulnerability recognition
Data sharing was widely addressed throughout the day with the question of whether the solution to enhancing vulnerability recognition might lay in a central repository of information for all data to be held and shared amongst the sector as a whole. Stephanie Trubshaw from Electricity North West and Amanda Phillips from United Utilities Energy and Water did an excellent talk addressing how the “sectors are working together to jointly identify and register customers onto their Priority Services who may find themselves in vulnerable circumstances”. Previously each utility has held their own register, now some are working together to simplify processes for customers and deliver a ‘Call us once’ service for registering across the industry. An ambition has been set that by 2020, there will be a fully joined approach to Priority Services for Energy and Water companies that will see data and registration of Priority Service customers shared (where consent is given) across Energy and Water companies in the UK. The issue of GDPR is very much at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to the sharing of data across the industry with some feeling it may act as a blocker to adopting such change.
Legacy systems and the integration of digital
The dedicated workshops in the afternoon focused on specific areas such as vulnerability and age, health and social care, affordability, utility competition and data. These sessions gave an excellent insight into what utility professionals thought could be done to make it easier to engage with vulnerable customers and at the same time embrace digital transformation. A key point repeatedly discussed was the view that legacy systems in many large utility companies act as a barrier to deploying the latest technological advances. As a supplier Flexys are acutely aware of the issues of legacy integration and have designed solutions to address and remove these barriers to adoption. The Flexys Collaborate solution can be deployed as a simple but powerful digital self service solution to complement and enhance legacy platforms, thus reducing cost to collect, improving customer service and reducing debt as well as the amount organisations have to set aside against bad debt.
It was a very informative, well organised event with a good representation from both industry professionals, consultants, regulators, research professionals and charities in attendance. This led to well balanced panel discussions, taking into account the views of customers in arrears as well as the feelings of utility companies and the regulators.
I left the conference alongside many others with a genuine feeling of optimism that the sector is ripe for digital transformation and that it will start to see significant and positive change, both with regards to the detection and treatment of vulnerable customers and in the adoption of digital innovation as a whole. When this might start to happen however is the question on many people’s minds. Some feel it is an area that won’t be taken up for years to come and with that comes the concern that the utilities sector will get left behind. One thing is for certain though, digital transformation across the sector will happen at some point and those early adopter organisations brave enough to embrace it look set to lead the way and benefit from these changes instantaneously.