Good communication and human interaction
Next time you get a letter from the water company, you might notice a bold message about help with water bills. This is an example of a communication technique called Making Every Contact Count (MECC).
The NHS and Public Health England pioneered the use of MECC. It utilises the millions of day-to-day interactions service providers have with the general public to reiterate public health messages — say, how to stay active or quit smoking.
We drew inspiration from MECC in our recommendations to the water industry. Water companies send regular letters, texts and emails to their customers about everyday issues like drainage and service interruption — why not use these to promote affordability schemes too?
We also suggested water companies reach out to their customers during ‘moments of change’. These are times in our lives when we might be more receptive to advice, like when moving house, having children or retiring.
To maximise responses and build trust, we recommended taking affordability schemes directly to communities. Doorstep conversations are sometimes the only way to build trust, rapport and get sign-ups in disengaged communities.
Another recommendation was for the industry to build a more collaborative, joined-up relationship with community organisations, debt charities, food banks and local authorities — making it harder for people who might need help to fall through the cracks between service providers.
The industry standard
After publishing our report in 2016, we disseminated our research through a number of industry events, activities and workshops with users, providers and regulators.
Now, all water companies in England and Wales have adopted our recommendations in full, as their baseline standards.
The results are clear. Between 2017-19, two million extra households took up affordability assistance. The savings totalled £212,000,000 to vulnerable households. Water company representatives can now be found in communities, at food banks and in close collaboration with other public service providers.
However, there’s still more to be done across the utilities sector. Since our 2016 project, we’ve conducted more research to help gas, electricity and water companies go further to engage hard to reach communities across the UK.
While we should all be mindful of how much fuel and water we use, no one should have to turn off their radiators, lights, taps and stoves because they can’t afford the bills.
By taking the time to understand what vulnerable customers need and want from their providers, the utilities sector can end water and energy poverty.