In this blog, our policy manager Janine Shackleton explains why supporting water customers in vulnerable circumstances is about much more than simply making bills more affordable.
Earlier this month, Ofwat published new research which echoed our long-held concerns that many water customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable are still not getting the support they need. Recent incidents, including flooding and water quality issues, have also highlighted how some customers can suddenly find themselves in a vulnerable situation caused by events beyond their control. Water companies need to ensure they have the systems and resources in place to support these customers too.
The industry has taken big strides towards providing more assistance for customers struggling to afford their bills, through the roll out of schemes like social tariffs. However we know from our own research that many of the most financially vulnerable customers are still suffering in silence and, in some cases, sacrificing other essentials, like heating or food, to pay their water bills. That’s why we want to see water companies do even more to reach those who are too embarrassed to ask for assistance, or simply don’t know that help exists. Of course ‘customer vulnerability’ is not simply about affordability and companies need to ensure all of their services are tailored to help those with a wide range of needs. Supporting customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable – whether financial or otherwise – should be seen as an essential part of the day job, not an initiative.
Companies need to develop effective systems for capturing important information customers have shared about their circumstances. Making sure this information is recorded the first time it is mentioned will also ensure customers get additional support at the earliest opportunity. Customer-facing staff also need to receive training that empowers them to spot the early signs that a customer needs additional help and support.
Ofwat’s report rightly highlighted some good examples of companies who are already doing some great work in supporting the most vulnerable in our society. These present the industry with an opportunity to collaborate and share examples of good practice, resources and ideas so all customers across England and Wales experience the benefits. Through collaborating water companies could, for example, produce a set of ‘easy read’ infographic messages on topics such as using water wisely, financial assistance and metering.
Whatever action companies decide to take, it’s important they involve customers who are in circumstances that make them vulnerable – and the organisations who support them – in designing tailored services.
Over time we believe these changes can begin to embed a more inclusive culture in the water industry that will lead to greater numbers of customers receiving a service that fully meets their needs.
This article first appeared in Utility Week