Sue Lindsay, Wessex Water’s director of customer policy and engagement, outlines the company’s commitment to improving the customer experience for all.
I have been working in the water industry for nearly 30 years and it’s great to see just how much desire there is within water and other sectors to make sure we provide a service that’s inclusive and accessible for everyone.
In September we published Every Customer Matters – An Inclusive Service for All. This is Wessex Water’s strategy for customers in vulnerable circumstances through to 2025.
Every Customer Matters isn’t new for us. We have always focussed on delivering the best customer experience, but we’ve recently reviewed and revamped our strategy in partnership with our customers, stakeholders, partners and advisers.
These partnerships are crucial and long-standing, nurtured over time to ensure we’re listening to everyone and delivering a strategy that works for all. It’s vital our partners play an active role in the creation and delivery of our services.
The Partner Hub
We have more than 200 partners, both local and national, working with us in in one way or another. As the number grows, we need to be able to serve them in different ways.
A first for the industry, our new digital Partner Hub is part of our drive to improve two-way engagement with our partners and give them more opportunities to self-serve.
Co-created with our partners, this online platform provides them with the ability to order a range of free standard or bespoke resources to raise awareness of our support schemes, information on all our support schemes with links to online application forms, news bulletins, information on our funded community projects and online applications for funding, updates and details for community events and a booking service for Wessex Water staff attendance at events and free training. Feedback from users is helping us develop additional content and functionality due to launch early next year.
An inclusive service
We know people don’t like to think of themselves as vulnerable, and most of us probably think the term could never apply to us. The reality is that anyone can become vulnerable at any time for a short or long period of time.
It may be due to age, physical or mental illness, literacy, unemployment, digital exclusion or just a sudden change in circumstances like a bereavement or divorce.
That’s why the starting point for our strategy is not to define or categorise vulnerability but to build our service on the basis that every customer matters, always.
We’re proud to have staff who are caring and sensitive, who can show compassion and think beyond the situation in hand. They are trained and empowered to identify signs of vulnerability and always go the extra mile. We give them the right ‘tools’, confidence and awareness to deal with complex situations they may come across on the phone or when face to face with customers.
For example, we’ve worked with Wiltshire Mind to develop an engaging and bespoke mental health training package that is delivered to all customer-facing staff. A version of our mental health training video appeared on our website and social media channels to raise awareness further.
Other specialist training has included spotting the signs of financial difficulty and Dementia Friends, which ensures we properly understand some of the challenges faced by people living with dementia.
Reaching our customers
People can find it very hard to admit they need our help, so we must be able to recognise when they do and make sure customers are aware of the support on offer to them.
At Wessex Water we are better equipped than ever to reach and support people in vulnerable circumstances. And that number is growing.
The latest research from StepChange shows that two in five of their clients were behind on at least one of their essential household bills in 2017. They estimate that more than three million people fell behind on their essential household bills in the last 12 months.
They also highlight that certain groups are particularly at risk of falling into arrears, including young people who are more likely to see a squeeze on incomes as a result of rising living costs and insecure work. A staggering 9.3 million people used credit to cover household need in 2017, up from 8.8 million in 2016.
Within our strategy we’ve listed more than 50 initiatives, under four workstreams, that will help us raise awareness and increase take up of our support over the next few years. Many of these build on our successes and learning so far. We’ve made a series of commitments to increase the numbers on our support schemes and retain external endorsements for our approach.
By using data wisely, layering multiple internal and external data sets together to identify hot spots in our region, we’ve been able to target our promotional work effectively. Through community engagement and funding local community projects with our partners we have been able to break down barriers and reach those who otherwise might not have been heard.
By working with energy companies who operate in our geographical region, we are sharing information so that customers only need to tell us once that they need support. As an industry we’re moving towards full national data sharing with energy by 2020 which is a huge step forward.
At Wessex we go beyond what might be expected of a water company. For example, we’ve been working with foodbanks across our region to support some of our poorest families.
We train their volunteers so they know about our affordability schemes and Priority Services and encourage people to apply, and we include promotional flyers for these schemes inside food bags. Our staff have enjoyed going along to help pack and distribute food parcels themselves.
For financially vulnerable customers, we have a wide range of schemes and low-rate tariffs to help people afford their ongoing water charges and repay any debts – along with practical help to reduce water and energy use.
Our main social tariff, Assist, offers customers a reduction of up to 90% off their water bills. We wrap all this support up as Tap (tailored assistance programme) to signal that our affordability assistance is tailored to meet customers’ individual circumstances and their ability to pay.
Following further consultation with our customers and stakeholders, we introduced our Pension Credit Discount in April 2016. This offers low-income pensioners, the ‘just about managing’, up to 20% off their bills.
In April of this year we introduced ‘Assist for Organisations’, having been approached by a charity that houses younger adults moving out of the care system. Assist is now available to those not-for-profit organisations so they can pass bill discounts on to those vulnerable young adults who are on very low incomes.
In addition, we offer customers help to repay their debt and get back on track through our Restart programme. Restart rewards the customer for paying their bill and, importantly, leads to a sustainable change in payment behaviour.
More broadly, customers with additional needs can join our Priority Services register and we will take account of their needs in our dealings with them – be it billing worries, communication difficulties or extra support requirements if there is an interruption to the water supply.
All our support for customers in vulnerable circumstances is set out as a series of service promises and, again, collaboration is key. Over the past year 23 organisations have reviewed the service we promise to offer now and into the future and allowed us to use their logos as a stamp of approval.
By 2030, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to rise to 20 million. This will inevitably lead to huge increases in the number of people with dementia, memory loss, sight loss and other challenging conditions.
There are also around seven million carers in the UK – that’s one in 10 people – and that number is rising. Three in five people will be carers at some point in their lives in the UK.
For all of the advances in healthcare, these numbers illustrate the scale of the issues that we face in the years to come and the importance of making sure our service is inclusive to all.
For more information: