Should vulnerability come with a cost?

Expert View
Ross Macmillan, Head of Research and Intelligence, allpay Limited
Featured in Utility Week 1st - 7th September.

Should vulnerability come with a cost?

With Universal Credit reducing the support for low income families, the theme of supporting vulnerable customers and reducing bad debt has added poignancy.

According to the debt charity StepChange, the number of people needing help to manage their debts has risen by 56% since 2012. And the proportion of customers contacting National Debtline with issues related to water bill debt has increased by almost 10% in the last five years.

To combat this water companies have started to offer low-income households social tariffs allowing an 80% reduction off the tariff. With 17 water companies now offering these tariffs, more than 130,000 customers are taking advantage of their new rates, an increase from 44,000 in 2013.

Innovative ways of ensure the take-up of these tariffs – and reducing the administration of assessments – is in evidence in Cambridge. There, the council is working with Cambridge Water to ensure that all those receiving Discretionary Housing Payments for support with housing costs are put onto a social tariff.

However, less than 50% of those eligible in the UK have signed up. With the cost of collecting debt from those that can’t afford their bill in the first place to the detriment of both the customer and the utility company supporting customers with a better matched tariff and educating them on usage now plays a huge part on company strategies and policies in turn helping them to reduce their bills, use their energy/water efficiently and stay out of debt.

By reaching these vulnerable customers quicker, using our data better and increasing innovative customer contact channels, companies are offering customers the opportunity to seek help and combat their debt in turn reducing the company’s debt to revenue ratio whilst as the same time allowing the customers to feel valued generating advocacy via outstanding practices and a reduction in complaints.

Companies operating on a payment in advance basis are switching to payment in arrears with the roll out of metering allowing companies to reduce consumption by over 15% in some cases.

Ofgem’s head of consumer vulnerability strategy Meghna Tewari stating that Ofgem wants to see a demonstrable effort by all industry participants to support vulnerable consumers and that there was no excuse for not improving standards for the vulnerable.

She added that the number of energy suppliers in the market now stands at 50 and that interestingly research has shown that average debt repayments were higher among customers with small and medium sized energy providers.

One of the measures designed to address consumer vulnerability has been the prepayment cap brought in from April 1 2017.

Around 15% of energy consumers, the equivalent of over 4 million households, are on prepayment meters and the lack of choice for the ‘best deals’ means they are more likely to be in vulnerable circumstances. This cap is expected to save many typical prepayment customers around £80 year per fuel.

With increased regulatory pressures currently faced by the financial services sector we are likely to see these translated to the energy sector with bad debt reduction remaining the key focus. Effective use of the ever growing data available from the introduction of smart meters and increases in industry data sharing will be integral todriving performance and improving customer experience. The ball is in our court, now is the time to ensure we are prepared to meet the needs of those who rely on us for an essential service in life.

Ross Macmillan, Head of Research andIntelligence, allpay Limited