In our latest 'dive in' blog Echo's Managing Director, Monica Mackintosh, explores how the water sector is supporting customer vulnerabilities...
As it stands today, can the water sector say it's truly offering effective service for customer vulnerabilities? I'm not sure it can.
And, given the focus placed on customer vulnerability in the PR19 methodology, sector regulator Ofwat clearly agrees. In fact, the recent disruptions in water supply that consumers experienced during the last spell of winter weather, highlighted once again the importance of identifying, understanding and supporting customers in circumstances of vulnerability.
Whilst I believe it's fair to say we're taking positive steps in the right direction, there's still much more we must all do - and not simply because of the PR19 guidelines. Yes, PR19 will be helpful in giving an immediate focus, but our motivation to improve service must go beyond this - motivated not by the need for compliance, but because it's the right thing to do for our communities and customers.
"With so many different forms of vulnerability, and their transient nature, services need to evolve in order to meet the varied needs that arise from these vulnerabilities. Solutions must be multi-faceted, and work must begin now and progress at pace."
We must look to make customers more aware of the support on offer, tap into the power of our customer-facing employees, grow community networks, evolve services and - crucially - not forget to ask our customers if we are doing enough.
Community awareness and engagement
A simple way to reach out to vulnerable customers can be to invest in more widespread promotion of assistance. Many consumers may not be aware of what support is available - this is backed up by our recent research highlighting that less than 1 in 3 consumers are currently aware of the different support schemes utility providers offer.
Balancing digital channels with more costly offline programmes can be effective here. Social media, and other online groups and forums provide effective channels to reach a wider customer base; recognising of course that promotion must be targeted at both the tech-savvy and those less digitally minded.
This does however rely, to an extent, on customers identifying themselves as vulnerable and seeking out help. But, some may not want to reveal their vulnerability or consider themselves as "vulnerable" per se.
"To successfully enact meaningful change, our customer service offerings must move beyond the office and contact centre; we must become more immersed in the lives of the customers and communities we serve."
Taking advisors out of the "faceless" contact centre and placing them at local events, third party offices or even a dedicated local centre can enable valuable face-to-face customer engagement and bring back insightful knowledge and learning to the wider operation.
A more consistent brand presence in the community can vastly increase touch-points and engagement opportunities as well as building both awareness and trust. This can be further strengthened by forging strong relationships with relevant charities and community groups.
Instigating change through your people
Obviously, front-line teams are integral in spotting customer vulnerabilities and regular training that really enables people to understand and empathise with consumers can help maximise this opporunity. Classroom based training does of course have a role to play, but vulnerability training needs to move beyond this.
Enabling your people to experience service as a vulnerable customer does, can really help knowledge and understanding. Also, charities and third parties can help teams form a more rounded view of what some consumers might need that is instead of, or different to, standard service.
Sharing first-hand vulnerability knowledge can also be effective. Employees may well know relatives or friends in such circumstances, or have personal experiences. We should look to make better use of this resource to shape and inform the unique services we offer to different groups of vulnerable customers.
"Never forget that the best ideas can come from front-line teams. Take steps to foster a culture of continual inward innovation and you and your customers will reap the benefits."
Service evolution and customer satisfaction
Awareness, engagement and training are all key to providing better support, but what's also clear is that services must evolve.
Communications, procedures and processes need reviewing through the eyes of different vulnerabilities to provision support that meets the need. All too often process and procedure is allowed to get in the way of effective customer support, and this must change. Commitment and priority from the top down will be crucial, in particular where significant changes are required.
As vulnerability is often transient, a 'once and done approach' is not effective. Segmenting and reviewing the customer journey for customers with different vulnerabilities can help further improve process and practice. Also, regular communication touch-points can help with keeping up to speed with changing needs.
Co-creation and collaboration can also be beneficial. Through working together with vulnerable customers, asking whether they are satisfied, and welcoming new ideas for change, utility providers can make the right changes and ensure customers are at the heart of service.
The need for a broader approach
A more inclusive and broader approach is sorely needed, and for many of us, this could mean a sea-change in policy. Currently, it feels like high profile or more commonly experienced vulnerabilities are being better addressed than the long tail of more obscure and lower profiled needs.
Being focused on, and providing assistance for, some groups of vulnerabilities - as welcome as this is - is just the first step on the journey ahead. Just ask a customer with an impairment not currently provisioned for how they view supportive service, and the answer may not be positive.
"PR19 is getting closer by the day, and I'm sure we'll all view this as a chance to initiate a step-change in customer support. As a sector, we've already taken the first steps, but there is a long journey ahead of us all."
Of course, effective service is all about understanding all customers - vulnerable or not. Customer vulnerability is just one of many key focuses for the water sector. Be it the environmental agenda, on-going cost pressures, or the social good movement, what remains fundamentally important is understanding and being trusted by your customers.
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