Getting supplier communications right is absolutely crucial, as there’s a link between lack of engagement with supplier communications and wider engagement in the market. It’s a topic we’ve explored in detail, publishing a series of research reports with provocative titles like Missing the Mark, From Devotees to the Disengaged and the Lost Decade. Each of these reports highlighted that key communications from suppliers were not meeting the needs of consumers, in the way that was originally intended.
That’s why Citizens Advice is supportive of Ofgem’s trials programme and the aims of the Future Retail Regulation reforms.
There’s been an explosion in new propositions aimed at engaged consumers. The future market, where consumers can choose from more complex tariffs and services involving dynamic pricing or load shifting, is on the horizon. New entrants are already targeting ever smaller niches from hyperlocal offers or requiring consumers to self-service online.
But there’s also a significant proportion of the population who lack digital skills and want to engage with their providers in traditional ways. These households are unlikely to have an easy transition to a new digital future or be well placed to take advantage of innovative products and services.
In a changing energy market a more flexible approach to regulation is needed. However any excitement about the potential of innovative products and services mustn’t come at the expense of an inclusive market that works for all energy consumers.
It’s essential that future reforms to consumer communications prioritise these key protections:
1. Suppliers must ensure that all households are regularly provided with accessible information to help them understand core information such as how much energy they’re using, what they owe, how to compare offers and make informed choices about switching tariff or supplier. The frequency of information is key; can you properly understand and make effective decisions if you only receive a bill once, twice or even four times a year? It’s notable that new entrants have, by and large, chosen to offer monthly billing as a means to attract customers.
2. Suppliers must ensure that they continue to offer a range of contact options to consumers. How resilient can a supplier’s processes be in an emergency situation if none of their customers have their phone number? Not everybody chooses their supplier, as people moving into a property inherit one.
3. Suppliers must account for the fact that vulnerability can be transient. A household’s circumstances may change over time, even if a supplier’s business model is designed to attract certain customer demographics. Customer communications will also need to take into account that some households have additional needs.
4. Suppliers must ensure that customers know where and how to get additional assistance. In an increasingly complex market, where significant proportion of the population are at risk of being left behind, knowing how to access to free and independent help and advice is absolutely essential.
Citizens Advice is the statutory advocate for energy consumers, providing advice and support to over a million energy consumers a year.
Gillian Cooper, Head of Retail Energy Markets, Citizens Advice
Gillian Cooper from Citizens Advice spoke as a part of the panel at a workshop on the Future of Consumer Communications, hosted by Energy UK and Ofgem.