Round up of the Utility Week Consumer Vulnerability Conference in London 2019 | Flexys

Round up of the Utility Week Consumer Vulnerability Conference in London 2019

12th July 2019 by Paddy Gilling

On Thursday Flexys attended the Utility Week Consumer Vulnerability Conference in London. With attendees from across the sector, this event was especially interesting given the recent publication of Ofgem’s 2025 Consumer Vulnerability Strategy. 

The early part of the day was devoted to the benefits of data sharing between network operators and suppliers; specifically focussing on the benefit Welsh Water were able to bring to customers in the Rhonda Valley by working alongside Western Power Distribution and increasing their community outreach. The outcome of this collaboration had a positive impact on the ability to identify and protect vulnerable customers and it was suggested more companies should consider the benefits of data sharing for this purpose. There was clarification on the regulations around sharing data from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Ofgem provided clarity on the reasoning behind the latest vulnerability consultation, in particular, the impact of digitisation and a more developed understanding of potential barriers to engagement that vulnerable customers may face. There were compelling statistics to support the case for omnichannel customer support options with more than 50% of people who live with mental health difficulties experiencing phone anxiety that impacts on their ability to manage their account and communicate with their supplier. 

Society-wide concerns about fuel poverty and affordability were reflected in the drive to better understand customers circumstances and to ensure that the ability to pay is central to debt management strategy and practice. Understanding their repayment arrangements and being able to communicate easily with their supplier in times of difficulty in a way that suited them were considered critical for the wellbeing of customers.

Lord Larry Whitty, chair of the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, shared insight from the Commission’s report into the challenges of identifying customers in what may be fluctuating difficult circumstances and the challenge of keeping consumer data accurate and up to date in the light of frequent switching. Water and energy suppliers are under pressure to find new and innovative ways of making data work to ensure vulnerable customers do not fall through the net and that every opportunity is taken to provide easy and accessible ways for customers to self-identify, comfortably and without prejudice.

Steve Crabb, Director of Consumer Vulnerability at Centrica, warned of the impact of the price cap and the potential negative impact it can have on vulnerable customers through a reduction in funding for charitable partners. He pointed out that this can put increased pressure on costs within larger suppliers leading to teams struggling with capacity. Finding the elastic capacity to serve customers appropriately and in a timely fashion when needed was one that will resonate among many suppliers, particularly those still wholly dependant on telephone communication.

Finally, Rebecca Dibb-Simkin shared how Octopus Energy are delighting their customers and achieving.rapid growth Their relentless focus on using technology as an enabler along with concentrating on customer experience and the ability to achieve a 95% first-time resolution to customer complaints were chief among these. 

Throughout the day there was an overall sense that the understanding of customer vulnerability continues to mature and that successful steps have been taken to reduce detriment and to serve customers who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances better. However, there was an acknowledgement that there is still work to do and that data and innovation have a key role to play in widening accessibility and to maximise the effect of resources and costs.

Key themes:

Collaboration is beneficial to consumers in vulnerable customers, but the ICO stressed that it needs to be managed with consent. 

Omnichannel is a must- exclusively phone-based customer service operations risk alienating large swathes of customers

Vulnerability and affordability remain key areas of focus for Ofgem.