Research finds lack of awareness about support systems for vulnerable water customers

Posted: Wednesday 16th May 2018

New research has found very low levels of awareness around the support systems available to water customers who find themselves in circumstances of vulnerability.

The study, completed by outsourced customer contact specialist Echo Managed Services, surveyed 1,000 UK residents on their experiences, knowledge and attitudes to household arrears.

Key amongst the report findings was that, if respondents were to find themselves in circumstances of vulnerability, and this overlapped with affordability - meaning it was hard to pay their water charges - very few would be aware of the range of schemes available to help them.

Just 22% were aware that they could gain access to special discounted tariffs if they fell behind on payments, whilst only one in five (20%) knew they could apply for help from charitable trusts. 28% were aware that their water company could signpost them to free debt advice whilst just one in 20 knew that their water provider could offer home visits for those with the most severe needs.

The research findings are particularly pertinent when considered against a backdrop of the incoming PR19 determinations, in which Ofwat is placing a strong emphasis on customer vulnerability to incentivise water companies to do more.

Monica Mackintosh, customer services director at Echo Managed Services, said: "Water companies will no doubt be aware of the increased scrutiny around how targeted, efficient and effective they are in addressing customer vulnerability. However, despite companies having already taken positive steps to improve support and services for vulnerable customers, our research suggests that awareness of current measures amongst the wider customer base is worrying.

"Evidently, investing in support schemes and training front line staff to recognise vulnerability isn't enough; the water sector needs to more actively promote the range of services it offers, so that their wider customer base is aware that support is available should they - or a relative or friend - ever need it. As reputation and trust become more intrinsically linked to brand value, community support must never just be a box-ticking exercise, but a concrete social consideration."

The report also highlighted that instances of debt are on the rise; 70% of people have experienced debt recovery procedures with at least one everyday service provider - a 7% increase in just 18 months.

More than half (53%) of these people did not think their service provider provided enough support to prevent them from falling into arrears in the first place. Many cited reasons such as inflexible payment options, poor communication and a general lack of understanding and empathy as key examples of this lack of support.

Monica continued: "It's concerning to find that many customers believe their debt was preventable, had their provider given them sufficient support - whether that be greater empathy, improved communication, more affordable bills or increased payment flexibility. In today's tough economic climate, it's important that companies work closely with all customers and support them where they can; truly putting customer needs at the heart of their debt and revenue protection strategies."

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