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Energy & Utilities

Watering down the barriers – Sydney Water’s approach to customer hardship intervention

27 Mar 2015, by Informa Insights

Rising utility prices have contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of consumers struggling to meet their utility repayments.

Recent reports state that consumer complaints to state Energy & Water Ombudsman are on the rise, but how are retailers navigating the complex challenges of balancing commercial objectives with regulatory requirements and social obligations?

Sydney Water - Improving access and removing barriers
Sydney Water – “Improving access and removing barriers”

In the lead up to the 3rd Annual Collections & Hardship Programs in Utilities conference we picked the brain of key speaker Toula Arronis, Customer Segmentation Access and Information Specialist at Sydney Water. We asked her a few questions related to the challenges, initiatives and the positive commercial impacts of customers requiring financial hardship support. Read on to see what insights she had to offer.

What are the challenges with identifying and engaging customers requiring hardship support?

Our research identified several common challenges across all segments which we have grouped into broad ‘themes’. These include:

  • Lack of awareness of our payment assistance programs and customer entitlements
  • Cultural issues – lack of trust/fear of government organisations
  • Technological barriers – lack of internet/ computer access, proficiency, physical constraints
  • Emotional barriers – embarrassment, shame, fear
  • Low level of financial literacy leading to poor financial management
  • Income constraints.

What initiatives are you adopting to respond to these challenges? What trials and testing have you seen the best results from to date?

There are a number of recommendations and actions we will put in place across the organisation. Again, looking at broad themes we want to:

  • Review customer information (particularly around payment assistance entitlements) including policies, brochures, fact sheets and website to ensure they’re easy to access and understand, use appropriate language and are considered fair by customers. We also want to develop collateral for tenants (eg information brochures, web content) to increase understanding of their entitlements and improve their customer experience.
  • Review current communications channels and explore new channels including SMS, email, events and culturally appropriate channels. Cross promote services and information, expand reach to all customers and enable easy, low cost communications through channels preferred by customers.
  • Partner with external stakeholders to engage with customers and promote information and services.
  • Develop online applications and tools to create low effort customer journeys and improve access to services, information and assistance.
  • Improve outreach of community care program and predictive analytics to enable customised outreach in areas of high debt and to vulnerable customers.
  • Develop a communications and engagement plan for the Payment Assistance Program, which includes cross promotion of services internally and an external campaign to reduce stigma/shame around accessing payment assistance.
    As it’s still early stages we don’t yet have measurable results.

    Better engaging with customers requiring support is essential
  • In saying that, we recently attended an outreach event (Seniors Expo) with more of a ‘general information’ approach instead of a ‘payment assistance’ focus. We developed new posters and collateral to attract customers to our stand. This material was focused on concession awareness, checking for leaks and promoting monthly bill payment, with payment assistance as a secondary focus. We did see an increase in attendees approaching our stand and talking to us about these topics.

What are the positive commercial impacts that these initiatives are having (or will have) for the business?

Outcomes we would like to see include:

  • Improved, regular customer consultation and feedback across customer life cycle.
  • Increase in on time payments – leading to increased available revenue
  • Increased take up of direct debit/CentrePay registrations – leading to decreased costs of payment channels due to customer migration to cheaper channels
  • Early intervention – eg customers are more comfortable / confident in contacting us or accessing information before their financial situation is unmanageable.
  • Consistent access to tailored communication material specific to needs of customer groups.
  • Better engagement with customers, leading to increased customer satisfaction, revenue & reputation, improved efficiency and reduced cost to serve.

What are the key topics that you are looking forward to discussing with your peers at the conference?

I’m keen to expand my knowledge in the customer experience and customer engagement spaces, as this will continue to be a key focus for us this year. Also interested in online self-service portals, how successful these are, customer feedback, challenges etc.

Toula will be presenting at the Collections & Hardship Programs in Utilities Conference to be held on the 11-12 May at the Rydges Melbourne. For more information on the event click here


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