Enhanced engagement in the energy sector. Part two – consumer vulnerability

15 April 2019

Enhanced engagement in the energy sector. Part two – consumer vulnerability

In the second in our series of blogs on the role of research in enhancing engagement in the energy sector, PwC Research’s Richard Fincham looks specifically at the issue of consumer vulnerability.

Protecting and empowering vulnerable consumers has become a priority for regulated services organisations across all sectors. Over the last few years, the energy industry has taken significant steps to reduce the number of disconnections and increase the number of customers on its Priority Service Register. However, vulnerability remains a complex and challenging issue, particularly in a time of rapid change, so later this year, Ofgem will publish their revised Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, outlining their key priorities for the industry.

PwC Research's engagement with vulnerable consumers has identified many challenges that energy companies need to consider. For example, these consumers tend to be less likely to switch[1] and can be reluctant to disclose their situation to providers. Low levels of engagement with suppliers' communications also makes it difficult to tackle these issues and this is exacerbated as suppliers move their communications online.

Understanding consumer vulnerability and their related needs is still evolving. For example, recent studies have shown strong linkages between debt and mental health issues (46% of adults struggling with debt have a mental health issue[2]), suggesting this is an area requiring a targeted focus. Mental health is not a homogeneous area, so care needs to be taken in identifying how providers can best support their customers, particularly as they are often reluctant to disclose their mental health issues.

It is also important to consider the potential impact of the future energy landscape on consumer vulnerability. Increased digitisation of services could benefit many, but what will the impact on the digitally excluded be, where over 1 in 10 households don’t have access to the internet[3]? By 2040, one in seven of us will be over 75[4] But, with a significantly greater number of customers potentially on the Priority Services Register, will this still be fit for purpose or will a more nuanced multi-tiered approach be required? With increased reliance on technology and the typical home potentially acting as a hub for work, transport and even healthcare, how should service outages be managed?

To cut through this complexity and develop appropriate forward-looking consumer vulnerability strategies, organisations need to effectively engage with this audience. Primary research should play a key role here in informing an organisation’s approach and ensuring this is rooted in a real understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviour.

 

[1] https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/vulnerable-consumers-energy-market-2018

[2] https://www.moneyandmentalhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/debt-and-mental-health-policy-note.pdf

[3] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/117256/CMR-2018-narrative-report.pdf

[4] https://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/files/Future_of_Ageing_Report.pdf

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