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Missed payments and managing payment support are part and parcel for any utility provider. However, in today’s current economic climate, more people than ever before are running into financial difficulties, meaning payments are getting increasingly harder to manage. In fact, a recent Financial Conduct Authority survey revealed that 12 million people in Britain will struggle to pay bills as the pandemic continues to wreak economic havoc. Water companies are facing the brunt of this – as a basic human right, providers are unable to disconnect domestic customers who are struggling to make payments. This puts water at the bottom of the pile, whilst other utilities such as electricity and gas take priority.
Now, as England navigates through a second national lockdown, which will see consumers and businesses faced with further financial ‘cliff edges’, issues surrounding payment support will only continue to grow. For many consumers, surviving the initial lockdown had been hard enough. And, for those who made it through by the skin of their teeth, entering lockdown for a second time could prove unendurable. Whilst the government has responded with a number of financial support systems, such as the furlough scheme and mortgage payment holidays, plans for extension are changing in real-time. However, these will at some point come to an end – which will leave consumers to face the stark consequences of the UK recession.
Businesses are also struggling. For many, employees have been working remotely for some time now, so paying for water for an empty office when there are more pressing costs to manage can seem unimportant. With the pandemic continuing to batter usual trading figures, Christmas trading, which many businesses rely on for growth, is likely to be severely impacted, meaning additional financial strain ahead for already-stretched companies. In fact, the closure of all non-essential stores, throughout November – retail’s busiest time of year – will be detrimental for brick-and-mortar retailers that lack an online presence. Forecasts for Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales will no longer be relevant for physical stores that will not be able to reopen until December 2nd at the earliest.
The challenge for utility providers
Whilst consumers and businesses are struggling, utility providers, which keep our nation running, will do so too if unable to recoup payments. Water companies need to work with customers to make it as easy as possible to access payment support. Those who don’t, risk being relegated to the bottom of the pile when it comes to the customer’s list of creditor priorities. The reality, however, is that current repayment systems aren’t often up to scratch to keep up with so many customers falling behind on payments. Many water companies require customers to print off and complete multi-page forms, disclosing their current circumstances to arrange a suitable payment plan. As well as being overly complex, this process can take weeks if not months to process, meaning further delays for both the customer and provider.
There is also the issue of changing government guidance for utility providers. Many are currently being encouraged to consider payment holidays and payment matching, whilst also helping customers pay their bills through WaterSure, Social Tariffs, and other affordability schemes. This will add extra complexity to existing processes, which are often not built to enable such flexibility.
Looking to innovation…
In order to overcome these challenges, utilities providers need to implement innovative solutions that allow them to build automated, digital platforms – that not only make it easier for them to manage payment support processes internally, but also improve the customer experience. Low-code software solutions can prove to be invaluable in this instance. Flexible, quick-to-implement Platform as a Service (PaaS) technologies, such as low-code, can help utility providers respond with agility, enabling them to build platforms accessible from a range of devices to access information, check bills, payment statuses, and set up payment plans. Low-code enables businesses to easily make changes to a process dependent on changing government guidance, due to its agile nature.
When combined with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technologies, systems built on low-code can also help to gather information from customer relationship management (CRM) systems about customers who are having problems with payment. RPA technology is particularly beneficial as it can be implemented over existing systems and data, minimising the disruption of current IT infrastructure.
A long-term solution
As more processes are being reimagined as a result of COVID-19, utility providers must look towards a long-term solution that can help both customers and their own bottom line. Again, low-code technology can help here, as it provides utility companies with the ability to easily implement change, and adapt and scale internal and external processes according to business needs, at no additional cost. Being able to modify processes quickly and simply is an important requirement in today’s volatile climate. Low-code enables utility providers to focus on delivering flexible solutions whilst providing a tailored service for their customers.
Whilst water providers do not have the same considerations as consumer companies in terms of losing household customers to competing brands, incentives such as Ofwat’s service incentive mechanism mean that customer experience should be front of mind, even when dealing with re-payments. This incentive encourages water companies in England and Wales to provide better service by scoring providers against each other within an annual report. Financial rewards are provided to companies with the best customer service ratings – something that water companies simply cannot afford to miss out on in today’s economic climate. In addition, whilst household customers may not be able to switch between water providers, businesses certainly can. Being ranked highly could therefore provide utility companies with a competitive advantage, and help to attract future prospects.
Supporting customers through financial turbulence
As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, managing payment support will be a relatable issue across a multitude of businesses, including banks, credit card companies, landlords and legal companies. Already we have seen almost 800,000 people failing to meet their credit or loan obligations in October, and this is likely to increase as we head towards Christmas. The end goal for these companies should be to provide a seamless customer journey that enables consumers to manage repayments easily and effectively. By introducing simpler processes, as well as managing existing repayments, providers can also help customers tackle debt much earlier – before it becomes a problem. For utility providers this means managing the flow of information, whatever its origin and destination, and being approachable on a range of communication channels.
Finally, with young people having been reported as the hardest hit by the financial squeeze of lockdown, businesses should therefore ensure their contact centre offering integrates with a range of communication platforms – from chatbots to social media. That’s especially as two-in-five consumers now prefer to use self-service channels rather than phoning a call centre. Understanding customer preferences and building solutions that enable companies to manage this whilst recouping payments will be essential in the months ahead – helping providers better serve customers whilst remaining financially stable themselves.
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