In its Vulnerable Consumers in the Energy Market report, Ofgem explains that, ‘Energy companies have a duty to support consumers in vulnerable situations through their licence obligations and other legal requirements’ (not to mention moral requirements!). But beneath that simple declaration of duty, lies huge complexities, nuanced customer requirements, additional staff training and none of this comes without significant financial cost for energy companies. In this post, we explain how Natural Language Processing (NLP) and AI-driven speech analytics can transform the way utility companies treat their vulnerable customers in an efficient and importantly, affordable way.
Ofgem’s commitment to vulnerable consumers
In Ofgem’s report, it noted that progress has been made in its support of vulnerable customers, but it also highlights concerns about performance in several areas including:
- Large variances in the quality and breadth of services provided by suppliers for their Priority Services
- An increase of customers in arrears due due to ineffectual engagement
- Self-disconnection and self-rationing
As part of Ofgem’s Consumer Vulnerability Strategy 2025 (CVS 2025), it wants to see customers being more effectively identified as eligible for services and provided with high quality priority services in a timely way. Ofgem wants suppliers to, ‘proactively identify customers who might benefit from additional support services.’ Ofgem explains that it, ‘encourages suppliers to use the data available to them to identify consumers in vulnerable situations and support them accordingly.’
Ofgem also wants suppliers to tackle self-disconnection and self-rationing by, ‘improving identification and providing consistent support for consumers across the market.’ When looking at ways to help customers in debt, Ofgem recognises some are contacting an energy efficiency helpline but in much lower numbers than those actually in debt. They want to ‘encourage suppliers to do more to ensure these customers benefit from appropriate advice.’
From a wider perspective, the CVS 2025’s success hinges upon activity in 5 key areas that include:
- Improving the identification of vulnerability and smart use of data
- Supporting those struggling with their bills
- Driving significant improvements in customer service for vulnerable groups
- Encouraging positive and inclusive innovation
- Working with partners to tackle issues that cut across multiple sectors
To address these areas, utility businesses may hire additional customer service representatives, reform their QA process to improve recognition rates or spend more on training their agents. But all of this comes at significant cost, and there are better, more efficient and less costly ways to achieve these outcomes. We’re going to explain into how NLP can transform Utilities’ performance in these 5 crucial areas:
Improving the identification of vulnerable customers and smart use of data
By implementing an NLP solution such as Aveni Detect, energy companies are able to monitor 100% of their customer interactions. Each recorded interaction can be uploaded to the NLP platform where it is transcribed, analysed and monitored, accurately flagging any words or utterances that indicate vulnerability. NLP solutions that use machine learning and AI technologies are able to more accurately and consistently identify vulnerable customers and continue to improve their performance over time through supervised learning.
When it comes to the smart use of data, NLP platforms can aggregate data from multiple sources and provide additional insight using transcribed customer conversations and other sources of communication. This provides a fuller, more meaningful picture of a customer, whether they should be flagged as vulnerable and how their situation might change over time. NLP platforms can pull together data across a population too, to identify trends around, for example, transient vulnerability or how specific age-related vulnerabilities might impact products or services offered.
Supporting those struggling with their bills
NLP solutions don’t just help identify those struggling to pay their bills (as described above) but can analyse conversations across this specific population to understand things like why they struggle, how their ability to pay might change over time, what factors affect their situation and so on. Analysis might also uncover what support utility companies provide that is helpful, what’s not so helpful and what type of services result in the best outcomes for both the business as well as the consumer.
If there are specific, standard processes customers need to go through with utility companies to enable them to be flagged as struggling to pay their bills, but it is also important to note that customers might not always be candid about their vulnerabilities or share reasons as to why they are unable to pay for bills. But with a speech analytics solution, it can help agents/supervisors and regulators to better understand those gray areas and get to the root cause of the problem quicker, allowing them to get the support they need.
NLP solutions can also help improve customer service representatives’ performance and Learning and Development (L&D). Aveni’s Agent Performance, for example, can help staff improve their handling of those in arrears by giving utility companies a better understanding of what conversational excellence looks like. Managers are quickly able to compare conversations against best practice and empower staff by giving them a personalised dashboard to learn and improve on-the-go.
Driving significant improvements in customer service for vulnerable customers
NLP solutions can uncover deeper, more meaningful insights to help utilities provide better customer service. For example, if a utility company is analysing and monitoring 100% of its customer interactions, it’ll be able to draw out trends and insights from both an individual customer level as well as from a population level. Through this data, you might find that a large number of vulnerable customers get frustrated with a certain part of your handling process, web form or live chat for example. A standard response or specific remedial action might be found to be inappropriate or irrelevant to certain segments of your vulnerable customer population. Conversely, you might uncover that specific actions from your customer service team result in high numbers of satisfied and happy consumers. All this insight can help utilities significantly improve the service they provide, not to mention the performance and L&D benefits we covered above.
Encouraging positive and inclusive innovation
NLP solutions embody positive and inclusive innovation for utilities. They can help companies monitor up to 100% of its consumer interactions meaning no one falls through the net. The exciting part about NLP offerings is that one solution can offer multiple outcomes, feeding insight to, and driving automation for multiple business functions, from marketing, product development and QA teams to customer service, customer success and sales. By using the latest innovation in AI, machine learning and NLP, utilities can completely transform their business, not just the way they treat their vulnerable customers.
Working with partners to tackle issues that cut across multiple sectors
As well as the utility sector, Aveni also provides solutions to some leading firms within the financial services sector making us an ideal partner to tackle customer vulnerability. We’ve embedded the FCA’s guidance on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers into our platform. The details of which are described here.
As the Ofgem continues to hone it’s CVS 2025, utility businesses are left to decide whether they want to throw money at obvious, and perhaps near-sighted fixes such as simply hiring more people or whether they want to innovate, digitise and choose an approach that’ll not only address their short-term customer vulnerability objectives but also have a longer-term transformative impact on the entire business.
Want to learn more about how Aveni uses NLP to help utility businesses better recognise, record and respond to vulnerable customers? Come chat to us!