How to Protect the Vulnerable from Rising Gas Prices

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byJames Gallagher

It is undeniable a national crises that many elderly – and otherwise vulnerable people – will struggle to pay for gas and electricity this coming winter with the rising gas prices caused by increased international gas demand and the National Grid fire in Kent. Even as this post is written, an article from the BBC states that ‘energy bills could rise by hundreds of pounds,’ with the energy price cap ‘soaring by £400 in the spring.’  On top of this growing financial burden, a million elderly in England say they go over a month without speaking to a friend. This staggering statistic, made no better by continued fears of Covid transmissions still on people’s minds, shows isolation from help is all but assured. So, what can firms do now  to fulfil their duty of care to their most vulnerable customers?  How can they ensure the influx of customers, some of them in vulnerable positions, will be properly recognised, recorded and responded to?

Redistribution is only part of the solution. That is failed suppliers customers going to other firms able to pick up the debt management and who will charge higher tariffs. The problem, while previously mentioned, is only the first link in the chain of undesirable consequences. We know everyone will be faced with higher gas prices but since gas bills are normally charged at a flat rate – typically divided monthly for average annual cost – this leaves two groups. Those who have underpaid and those who have overpaid (total year usage so far).  The underpaid now have debts that will only rise, obviously not good. The overpaid are a pressure on challenger firms trying to undercut larger firms’ prices to get market share but are collapsing in the face of rising prices. 

Regardless of who the burden of tackling this issue goes to – whether it remains with challenger firms or moves to larger firms – the question is how do they protect the vulnerable from unaffordably high gas prices? 

No one can be helped if not heard. Help for any distress to come can be mitigated by proper planning. Energy companies know this, that is why 26 of them – constituting 90% of the market – have signed up to a commitment to reach out to vulnerable customers.  One on one, tailored advice by properly trained agents would offer the best experience and outcomes for customers but that’s extremely expensive. Or is it?

Speech analytics can monitor 100% of customer service data whatever the channel (phone, web chat, etc). A passing comment of struggling to pay a bill or recently losing a job can be picked up and automatically highlighted as a potential vulnerability increasing the quality assurance of the firm. This aid helps firms better work with customers to know how they are vulnerable, the nature of that vulnerability over time and what they can do to better support the customer. This winter vulnerable people will need heat. A company will need to provide that heat, but someone will also need to pay for that heat. Identifying the vulnerable, helping them prepare once recognition of the situation is known, then providing the means for that payment is crucial in this crisis so no one falls through the cracks.

But as we mentioned many cannot afford to pay and still energy companies can go only so far into the personal finance decisions of their customers. There are those who are suited to these problems and it shall take the responsibility of energy companies to direct customers to these sources of help. For example if you are born before 26th September 1955 (making your age 66 by the time of reading) you can apply for the Winter Fuel Payment which gives between £100-£300. Another scheme is the Warm Home Discount which gives a discount up to £140 for those who receive a pension but also those on low incomes or who receive means assistance income. Those two are the essential parts to be eligible but this scheme is also only available to those firms who are a part of the scheme. Thankfully this is many (33), but unfortunately not all – especially post hoc those small entrants that have undercut prices arguably too much. There is also a wealth of financial guidance and advisors produced and run by charities such as Citizens Advice and Step Change that can be referred to help customers plan, minimise and streamline their expenses.

Getting a holistic view of a customer, not only that they’re in a vulnerable situation, but understanding why and how long these circumstances might last for is key for companies to be able to better serve them.  It is more critical now than ever firms must; identify, understand, help, and maintain via communication they pledged to start.

To learn more customer vulnerability and what we do at Aveni, come speak to us!

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