Providing Extra Support to Vulnerable Customers: E.ON’s approach
In a competitive market, how companies ensure their services are accessible to all, and in particular, how they support their most vulnerable customers, can be a tricky subject. Not all energy companies, for example, are the same.
For the specialist teams at E.ON supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances, the work we do is more than simply “a job” – we feel we can genuinely make a difference for our customers in times when they really need it.
Within our debt function, we have a small team of field-based colleagues whose sole purpose is to carry out home visits for customers where we are concerned about their well-being and believe they would benefit from some face-to-face support, or where we have had limited contact and we want to better understand the customer’s circumstances.
It can take weeks of perseverance and care for us to make headway with some of our most vulnerable customers. Take John, for example. When we first visited his home he had barricaded the front door and was refusing to interact with anyone. Our advisor was able to talk him around and gain his trust to the point that he let her into his home and opened up about his situation. John had a number of health problems and a change in his benefits payments had left him struggling to cope. Our advisor was able to arrange an emergency food parcel, help John to apply for support grants including our own Energy Fund and help with his benefits appeal. This took several visits to achieve and resulted in us getting John the help he needed from Social Services and also linking him in with the Salvation Army and Christians Against Poverty to provide outreach and befriending services to help counter John’s feelings of loneliness and isolation.
We routinely monitor our customers who prepay for their energy and had concerns about a customer, Derek, who had not topped up his Smart prepay meter for 24 hours. When we called, Derek was sitting in the dark with an elderly family friend. Derek suffers from various mental health conditions and has a fear of being alone, so they keep each other company as he has no close family and was not receiving any other support. Derek told our advisor that his benefits had been stopped after a review, that he was receiving monthly PIP payments but one was not due for another two weeks. He had asked for the Smart prepay meter to be installed because at the time, he was in a better financial situation and found it easier to pay this way.
Derek had contacted our call centre and received a temporary top-up for his meter but this had run out and he was under the impression that he could not call in and ask for another one. We got Derek back on supply straight away, arranged a home visit and got him registered with his local food bank as he had eaten his last tin of custard the previous night. We have had regular contact with Derek since then and he is in a more positive state of mind; he is eating regularly, is keeping warm and his health has improved. Derek was grateful for our intervention and told our advisor he did not think anybody cared and could not thank us enough for stepping in when we did.
Private companies can do more
We are proud to provide this support to our most vulnerable customers when they really need it; this is not a one-size-fits-all approach but is about responding to the needs of the individual and empowering our colleagues to do what is needed to safeguard our customer. While there has to be a limit to how much of this kind of support we can provide, even with finite resources and limited funding, the difference that energy suppliers can make in the lives of individual customers is significant, as the stories outlined above show.
For many people, it can feel overwhelming to ask for help, but it is vitally important to seek advice early not only to deal with the immediate debt issue but the myriad effects that are associated with the stress of being in debt.
Jo Lazzari is the Customer Support & Solutions Manager at E.ON Energy and leads the teams supporting vulnerable customers in debt.
This is a guest blog. The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of the APPG on Poverty.