Unlocking the Payment Difficulty Framework

By Michael Chatfield, General Manager – Australia & Asia, illion Digital Tech Solutions

Earlier this month, illion Digital Tech Solutions hosted a roundtable ‘Embracing the Payment Difficulty Framework’ in Melbourne. Experts from EnergyAustralia, Proviso and illion Digital Tech Solutions discussed how energy retailers can embrace the new directive to deliver better outcomes for end customers.

The Payment Difficulty Framework, part of The Energy Retail Code by The Essential Services Commission, sets new standards for how energy retailers must treat customers in, or facing, debt. This comes into effect in January 2019 and will ensure that all customers have equitable access to assistance, so that disconnection is only ever a last resort.

A key theme that emerged from the event was that proactive and considerate interaction is one of the framework’s cornerstones. Energy retailers must provide timely information about, and action to avoid, debt at an early stage for effective self-management or support from others. Enabling end-customers to engage about any payment difficulties is significant to effective outcomes under the charter.

Soon, retailers will be required to contact their customers via their preferred channel of choice if this is known. The framework considers it ‘good practice’ for retailers to have ‘dedicated contact channels including telephone numbers, email address and web portals, for financial counsellors and other consumer advocates to enable easy access to retailers’ specialised staff.’

Fundamentally re-examining how customers are communicated with will be a real game-changer for the industry. We have seen first-hand how opening up and personalising communication channels can improve outcomes and the collections process overall for the utilities sector. The secret is to hand back control over repayments to the customer by providing self-service and real-time digital channels, yet providing support as needed.

Letters and phone calls work for some, but not all. Personalisation is central to this – suppliers must find the best way to communicate with each customer to reach the best outcome. Self-service options, including web payment portals, ‘Pay by SMS’ and IVR can provide a more tailored customer experience. They are also often more cost-effective than a traditional call centre and offer the end-customer more control. These same channels can also be used to set up a payment plan or complete a financial assessment.

We can take key learnings from the UK, where similar regulatory changes about treating customers fairly and appropriately have come into effect. This has driven the take up of digital channels to enable two-way communications between provider and consumer, as well as offering a number of ways to settle bills.

Customer-centric experiences should be at the heart of any service-provider’s strategy. The way in which organisations communicate with their customers has evolved and consumer expectations are higher than ever before. By understanding how and when customers like to engage, energy retailers can not only adhere to the Payment Difficulty Framework but also positively revolutionise the relationships they have with them.

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