Vulnerable customers – why water companies can do things differently

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It’s been just over 12 months since I joined the fantastic team here at Sigma Connected and during what has been an unprecedented year caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a variety of debates which have created conversation and began to lead change within the UK’s water industry like never before.

Having worked in the industry for a number years, I know only too well that water providers are up there amongst the most innovative, forward-thinking companies.

Not only are they piping clean water into tens of millions of homes and businesses each day, but they are also forging new environmental partnerships, working proactively alongside developers, solving daily sewerage problems, and producing innovative forms of recycled energy which is being pumped back into the grid.

Some amazing thinking by some amazing people.

There are too many case studies to mention here in my short blog but one area where I am urging water companies to think and do things differently, and where I feel there needs fresh thinking, is around their treatment and service to vulnerable customers. Quite simply, are water companies doing enough or are other ‘priority’ debts putting them at the back of the queue?

Partly due to the pandemic, but not exclusively, there are thousands of people across the UK who are struggling with debt and their financial circumstances. This has led to them falling behind with bills and where unfortunately, debt management firms begin to circle.

It’s a tough situation for many and perhaps best underlined by one of the most recent surveys from the Consumer Council for Water. Amongst other issues, worryingly the survey showed that over at least the past 5 years only 5% of customers know where find or access financial support. That’s extremely low.

Additionally, 89% of people were not aware of the WaterSure tariff and a staggering 26% people would not contact their provider if they were worried about their bill.

These are just the headlines but more information about the CCW study can can be found here.

So what can be done and how can we improve the message to vulnerable or hard to reach customers?

Here at Sigma, and like other colleagues, I am extremely proud of our Reach:Out initiative and for the national plaudits it continues to gain.

Led and delivered by a team of hand-picked, dedicated staff, Reach:Out solely helps companies connect with customers who are struggling to pay bills, looking for money and payment advice, or to signpost them to charities who can help with their wellbeing.

Reach:Out is something totally new. It changes the norm and is an idea which accelerated due to the pandemic.

It has been brilliant to see more and more utility firms come onboard with Reach:Out as they have seen, helped by our team, that it’s a fantastic way to re-engage with their customers, have sensible, one-to-one conversations, and hopefully find a solution to getting them back on track, rather than burying their heads in the sand.

It has also opened up new pathways by linking people to charities like the Samaritans where hundreds of our clients’ customers have been given meaningful and ongoing support.

It’s no surprise to me that Reach:Out is up for multiple industry awards as we enter the latter stages of 2021 as, going back to the start of my blog, we have proven we can and will do things differently.

It’s innovative thinking on a different level and, albeit me being biased, something I think water companies should not hesitate to check out further and engage with as it can change the course of a customer journey in so many positive ways and most importantly, also make customers think differently.

About the author

With extensive experience in the utilities sector through leadership roles with Thames Water, Southern Water, Good Energy & Opus Energy, Will Brown is Sigma Connected’s Director of Water Services and expertly leads our growth across the water industry – working with both new and existing customers.

For further information you can contact Will through will.brown@sigfin.co.uk. You can also connect with Will on LinkedIn.

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