Connecting with customers in financial difficulty

Assisting people experiencing financial difficulties has always been a core part of customer service, and today is no different. The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the rising costs of basic commodities due both to the war in Ukraine and to Brexit, mean that consumers everywhere are struggling to stay on top of their finances.

The increase in energy prices has further impacted the situation — the price cap went up by £693 in April, and may increase again in October by up to 50%. However, energy suppliers are working to mitigate the impact these problems are having on their customers, such as encouraging the use of smart meters.

In this article, we’ll discuss what energy companies can do to connect with and support customers that are experiencing financial difficulties.

What is causing the rising costs of living?

There’s no single answer for what’s causing the current cost of living crisis. Certainly, the slowdown in business operations due to the pandemic is part of the problem: many industries still suffer from supply chain shortages due to pandemic closures or updated regulations. Geopolitical conflicts like the war in Ukraine mean that products sourced from those areas will be unavailable, some of which are basic commodities.

There are also multiple causes for the rising costs of energy — which are so high that the average monthly price for electricity in March 2022 was more than four times what it was in March 2021. The ongoing energy supply shortage plays a big part in this increase, particularly natural gas.

Even those with a relatively good credit history are struggling to make ends meet in these economic conditions, resulting in a new wave of people getting into financial trouble. For  example: personal debt in the UK was £1773.2 billion at the end of February 2022, which is a £66.4 billion increase compared to 2021.

How the energy industry can help people manage rising costs 

There are many institutions that can support those in financial difficulty at this time, but energy providers have a few unique ways they can provide assistance:

Encourage smart meter rollout 

Alongside older tactics like advice on how to lower usage, smart meters  are a great way energy suppliers can help reduce customers’ bills. As well as installing new meters, companies could build customer service strategies that help energy customers recommission smart meters that aren’t currently working, remotely.

A vital part of customer service-centric strategies like this one is having a large enough workforce to handle call volumes. Companies may need to rely on partners like Sigma Connected to offer outsourced customer service: trained staff that can help book installations and repair appointments or recommission nonfunctioning meters over the phone.

Reach out to vulnerable customers early 

It’s crucial energy firms offer help early to customers. If they don’t, an individual’s debts are likely to become unmanageable.

It’s good to reach out to customers as soon as their payment fails so assistance can be provided before the customer falls into the collections cycle. If possible, energy companies could make customers aware of support options even prior to payment failure, by training service staff to explain what customers can do should they encounter financial difficulties.

Customer-focused collections 

When a customer’s bill payment fails or they have difficulties meeting the costs, customer service teams should make customers feel at ease by encouraging open communication across all channels. As such, omnichannel technologies are the first step in personalising collections services, providing customers with options about how they engage with their energy provider.

The next step is making sure that their payments are collected seamlessly with the help of trained professionals who are skilled at the early-stage collections process. Customer service teams should be well-versed in all stages of the debt collection process.

The final step in creating truly customer-focused collections is to utilise data insights. Using customer data, service teams can identify individuals who may be in a vulnerable position and set up pre-emptive communication measures to make sure that these people don’t slip through the net and instead get the support they need.

Tips for connecting with customers facing financial difficulty

Companies that genuinely address people’s difficulties with empathy can build customer loyalty over the long term. This is essential for energy providers to learn, as customer satisfaction with energy companies’ customer service is the lowest it’s been since 2017.

Energy providers should consider actively engaging vulnerable customers with additional services like pre-alerts ahead of bill cycle, courtesy calling, and outbound smart meter readings.

In addition, energy companies need to ensure they can correctly handle calls from those in financial difficulty. Whilst online resources like FAQs can be utilised for basic enquiries, more complex conversations about debt or payments will require a human touch. As the number of customers facing financial difficulties increases, energy companies may need support from an outsourced customer service team to ensure a high standard of service is delivered.

Finally, if all else fails, energy companies should still strive to re-engage customers in financial difficulty if previous attempts at contact have been ignored. Services like Sigma Connected’s ReachOut scheme that discuss the support available to customers to help them (without the focus being on debt collection or bill payment) can help customers resolve their problems and get back on track with payments.

Sigma Connected outsourced customer service: acting as a lifeline for customers in financial difficulty 

The Sigma Connected leadership team have over two decades of experience in the energy sector, and are uniquely positioned to help energy service providers deal with the impact of rising living costs is having on their customers.

We’ve created outsourcing solutions that can open up communication with service users of all types, including the most financially vulnerable.  Contact us today and learn more about how we can help you reach customers in need.