'No shame in vulnerability' says water regulator
A dramatic increase in the number of people struggling to pay their water bills has led the UK's water regulator to call for operators to reconsider how they define customer vulnerability.
Ofwat say half a million customers have signed up to major schemes for help paying their bills - but while many more need some form of help, there's no assistance available to them.
Their report [pdf] states that providers "equate vulnerability with certain types of people" rather than seeing it as a product of changing situations or circumstances.
The result, as Ofwat Chief Executive Cathryn Ross explains, is that customers who suddenly find themselves vulnerable "often don't get the support they need and sometimes don't know how to ask."
Water is notoriously expensive in the UK, with the average bill coming in at £387 a year.
However, prices vary fairly drastically by region - for example, the average bill in the South West is £488, and we've little choice about how much we pay, and none about who supplies us.
But while traditional definitions of vulnerability rely on factors that aren't likely to change quickly, Ofwat point out that things like losing a job, illness or divorce can act as a financial tipping point for those already treading a fine line between being able to pay or not.
Many then experience feelings of shame, denial or helplessness - and even those who don't are often unsure how to proceed: they don't want to be identified as vulnerable because they're "afraid of the consequences" such as "personal impacts, or access to services".
For their part, the most important thing that companies can do is to "get to know their customers and understand their circumstances", says Ms. Ross.
"They can then target services appropriately and build customer trust and confidence," she adds.
One way of "getting to know" customers is by using data more effectively and partnering with other utilities and third party organisations.
Ofwat say that this is already proving effective in identifying and assisting customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable.
Of course the other way to get to know customers is through talking to them.
Alongside their report, Ofwat have put together a Practitioners' Pack, highlighting the importance of customer service that offers "sensitive and empathetic support" to everyone, rather than just traditionally "vulnerable" groups, such as the elderly or young, or people on low incomes.
With more or better training, Ofwat say, staff would be able to "encourage" customers to "disclose their needs" - say by asking questions that could help identify "trigger points" such as a relationship breakdown or increased caring responsibilities.
The guidance suggests offering several flexible arrangements to help customers, including various channels of communication, different payment options, and different ways to access information - such as face-to-face visits or webchats.
Of course, even the best trained and most empathetic staff can only do so much to spot and help deal with potential and actual issues; as we've mentioned above, many people aren't always willing to seek help, even when they really need it.
According to the Consumer Council for Water, despite the number of us having problems with our bills, and despite a growing awareness of the assistance offered by water companies - from 12% of us to 47% over the past four years - the proportion of us making use of these services "remains static" at 1%.
The types of service vary between providers, but can include everything from water efficiency advice to special assistance registers and home visits.
Some - eventually all - water companies will also offer lower cost social tariffs to those who are really struggling. Even so, Ofwat say that among those water companies who already offer them, there's "slower than expected" take up.
The one piece of advice all companies - and advice agencies - give to people who think they may be having trouble meeting payments is to let them know as soon as possible - but that still relies on people who are often reluctant to speak up doing so.
It's worth doing, as water companies are obliged to offer their customers free advice on payment options and repayment plans.
So Ofwat's call for companies to consider vulnerability as something dynamic, something that all of us can be affected by, rather than solidly defined, could help - by "removing the label".
We may have to pay set prices, but finding out about doing so in a way that better suits us is more attractive an option than having to ask for help with payments, for example.
Ofwat's Practitioners' Pack highlights some of the work water companies are already doing to help their customers whatever their needs - but as the regulator is keen to point out, they're only guidelines.
It's good to know work is being done by both the companies and the regulator - but as more of us seem to be having trouble paying the most essential of bills, it would be good to see more determined efforts as well.