Customer care for vulnerable people

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Guest blog

18th July 2019
Areas covered:
Consumers
Jola Dolewska
Joa DolewskaA positive customer service experience is crucial to building trust and engagement. For people in vulnerable circumstances, services that don’t reflect needs can cause detriment, and at worst trauma or jeopardy. Here Jola Dolewska, energy officer at South Seeds – a community organisation in Glasgow – shares her first-hand experiences on the importance of customer service from energy suppliers for people that need additional support with their gas and electricity.
 

It has been another busy week for South Seeds. We are a community-based organisation which supports people to lead sustainable lives. I am one of two part-time energy officers. Local residents drop in to find solutions to their energy problems. This morning I had two clients with billing issues. I would describe both clients as vulnerable. Their households were low-income (a mixture of part-time zero hours contracts and state benefits), with at least one member of family in each household having a long-term illness and disability. Both households had children in the property. Both customers’ level of literacy was poor, and English was their second language. Despite the similarity in their circumstances, the outcome of their appointments couldn’t be more different.

The first client presented a very high bill. We walked back to their home to check their meter and then came back to our office and gave the energy provider the actual meter reading. This cut the client’s bill by over £700. Once an accurate bill was generated, they were left with a small amount to pay and no more worry.

The second client came in with a high bill and I called up the energy company and gave them the reading they had brought with them on a phone. It turned out the bill was underestimated for around £350 and had resulted in debt on the account. The client needed support with arranging a repayment plan, and I also submitted an application for a financial grant to the Energy Trust. The trust were able to cover half the debt and the rest of the debt was put in the repayment plan.

That afternoon I had a drop in, who was brought to our office by a member of a family who dealt with us previously and received our support. The client had prepayment meters for both, gas and electricity and had a problem with one of them. Despite topping up their electricity prepayment meter twice in one day (total of £18), the meter didn’t accept the credit and they went off supply. It was a household with young family – two children under 5 years old, one of them just three months old. All the kitchen appliances were electric, and without electricity they couldn’t warm up milk for the infant.

I went to the client’s house and after establishing the meter was faulty – the screen was blank despite pressing the button – I called the energy supplier, and an engineer was booked to come out the same day. I called the client later that day to check if the engineer came out and that they were back on supply. The client confirmed the meter was exchanged for a new one, and it was credited with £10. I arranged a follow-up appointment later in the week to request reimbursement of the £18 they had lost due to the faulty meter.

We work with over 150 drop-ins per month. It is difficult to say exactly how many are vulnerable, possibly 80% are vulnerable in some way. However, we don’t ask our clients about their vulnerabilities unless we need the information to help solve their problem.

Priorities in energy customer service

In its new Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, Ofgem has set out a number of priorities with outcomes to drive significant improvements in customer service for vulnerable people. We’re asking for input on our proposals by 8 August 2019.  Learn more and respond here.

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Our series of guest blogs represent the views of the authors writing with a view to encouraging debate about important energy topics. They do not represent the views of Ofgem, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or commitment by Ofgem to take any particular course of action.