In a September EnergyInsider, we looked at the National Energy Customer Framework, which places certain obligations on retailers to support their customers in times of payment difficulty. Retailers take their role as providers of essential services very seriously and the intensive monitoring and reporting of their obligations illustrates this. But these regulatory obligations merely represent a part of their extensive support programs. The willingness of retailers to invest further in supporting customers in need is a sign of their broader customer commitment. This article takes a closer look at the additional support retailers provide to their customers.
It’s critical to understand from the outset that customer experiences are not homogenous, and in instances of payment difficulty, no two sets of circumstances are alike. Retailers focus on tailored conversations with customers in hardship so that they can understand their needs and provide an appropriate support plan to help them get back on track. The plan can include making sure the customer is on the best available energy offer, providing payment options and financial counselling referral. For example, EnergyAustralia have a specialised team of trained agents to manage these customers throughout the program, this includes Onboarding / On Program / Graduation / Post Graduation for several billing cycles.
Some retailers will on occasion replace faulty appliances for customers that are experiencing complex vulnerabilities and do not have the funds to replace the appliance themselves. The Origin Energy case study below is a good example of the mix of obligatory support coupled with extra assistance. In all case studies noted, the customer names have been changed to ensure privacy.
Customer case study - Suzy and James
A financial counsellor contacted Origin on behalf of a customer, Suzy, who was experiencing financial difficulty. Suzy is in her 50s and lives with her adult son James, who has an intellectual disability. Suzy has been in hospital for several weeks because of domestic violence.
Suzy could not go home from hospital because she did not have hot water at home and would not be able to bathe her wounds. James was put into a group home while Suzy was in hospital.
Prior to being hospitalised, Suzy, her partner and James did not have hot water for 9 months, as their hot water service broke, and they did not have the funds to fix it.
After learning about Suzy and James’s story, Origin covered the costs of replacing their gas hot water system so they could return home. Origin also waived their energy account debt to help them get back on their feet.
In a Momentum Energy example, the customer in payment difficulty had been supported for several years which also involved a change of address. In this customer’s situation, a payment matching program helped the customer clear their debt.
Customer case study - Mary
In April 2021, Mary contacted Momentum Energy to advise that she was having a tough time maintaining and getting on top of her invoices. Mary was placed onto Momentum Energy’s hardship program.
Mary continued to engage with her retailer under their Keeping Momentum program to inform of any changes to her situation, discuss ways to reduce usage, have her tariff reviewed and find more cost-effective plans. Government grants were discussed and applied to Mary’s account. Mary was placed onto a Centrepay payment arrangement of $70 a fortnight in line with her consumption.
In mid-2022, Mary advised that she was moving to a new address. At the time of the move, Mary had an outstanding debt of $1400 on the old account. In August 2022, the new account was established, and Mary advised that as she was no longer living alone, usage at this new premise had increased to $100 a fortnight.
Momentum offered to transfer the debt from the old account across to the new account and a Centrepay arrangement was also established for $100 fortnight in an attempt to help combat the debt. In May 2023, Mary was offered a payment matching incentive, where the retailer would match Mary’s payments.
Mary has been able to repay her debt, can now cover her usage and has now been successfully removed from the Keeping Momentum program.
The Momentum Energy case study is a good example of the financial support retailers offer their customers, with a key focus on delivering sustainable outcomes that can enable a customer to afford their ongoing usage at some point in the future. AGL offers a range of financial support to vulnerable customers. Support varies depending on the individual circumstances of the customer, but range from bespoke debt waivers made in conjunction with financial counsellors through to larger scale debt relief packages. The example provided below includes some feedback received from the Financial Counsellors that AGL worked with to support their customer.
Customer case study - Jacinta
In January 2023, a financial counsellor contacted AGL requesting financial support for a customer impacted by Family Domestic Abuse. At the time of contact the customer, Jacinta, had a balance of approximately $900, was unemployed and unable to make any payments towards the total balance. Acknowledging Jacinta’s situation, a debt waiver was applied for the full balance. Subsequently, we received the following feedback from the financial counsellor: “Jacinta was in the office with me when your call came through. She had tears of thanks. This means a lot to her.”
Aurora Energy also provide financial support through a range of measures including their Your Energy Support (YES) program. The YES Program is available to customers who are struggling and not able to get back on top of their bills using Aurora Energy’s other payment plan options. The YES program includes the option where a customer has made 3 plan payments, that Aurora may cover the fourth payment. Customers may be eligible for the YES program if they:
Addressing cost of living issues
Earlier this year, Simply Energy launched a program called 'Here to Help', aimed at helping their customers facing financial pressures by trialing new ways of offering support. Through April and July of this year, over 13,000 customers took up the offer of support, receiving more than $3 million in bill credits. For these customers, the support has helped with the impact of price increases, as well as higher winter bills.
Clearly cost of living remains a challenge, so Simply Energy have just launched the next iteration of Here to Help with payment matching for their Bill Assist customers, along with energy reduction incentives. The below graph illustrates the success of the Here to Help program in 2023:
Here to Help insight 2023 (Simply Energy)
Simply’s bill relief credits were delivered under three key work streams:
1. Hardship plan opening incentive of a $100 bill credit for opening a new hardship plan.
2. Up to $500 in credits, matched against every dollar a bill assist customer pays towards their current payment plan.
3. $20 bill credit applied for usage reduction (paid each week if customer used less energy, than same time last year).
This incentive was on offer for 90 days in Q2 2023 and was delivered to Simply’s Hardship customers with debts in arrears greater the 120 days.
Customers took advantage of the credits; this was observed in instalments paid by customers increasing through the H2H project. Average payment per quarter by BA Active plans increased by 5 per cent from $168 (Q1) to $178 (Q2). Payment observed within BA Active Plans in June showed the steepest increase of 11 per cent from $180 in March to $201.
In 2022-23, Aurora Energy implemented a range of support measures to ease cost-of-living pressures, with around 3,400 customers on their YES program receiving account incentive payments to the value of $902,000. Aurora also provided $250,000 to the No Interest Loans Scheme for Tasmania, a program that allows Tasmanians who have current healthcare card, pension card, DVA card, or low income healthcare card, or have a gross income of $55,000 or less to purchase new items or services with access to a No Interest Loan.
AGL offer a Customer Support Package to help their customers with broader cost of living pressures. It includes:
Supporting community programs
Energy retailers also support a range of community programs including:
The Queens Fund: The Queens Fund provides financial assistance to single, Victorian women and their children who are in crisis, distress or in emergency situations. Independent financial counsellors, social workers, community workers who assist/are advocating on behalf of a woman, make an application to The Queens Fund requesting a debt waiver. Origin Energy support the Queens Fund by waiving debt from customer accounts rather than the Queens Fund having to take money out of their fund. So far this year, Origin Energy has waived over $40,000 in energy bills for single women in crisis.
Victorian Homeless Fund: The Victorian Homeless Fund (VHF) builds much needed housing for women and children fleeing family violence. In 2022, Origin Energy donated construction energy costs, solar systems, free electricity and gas for 12 months and ongoing Power On hardship support to the incoming tenant. In 2023 Origin Energy have again partnered with the VHF to build a home for a family in need.
Salvation Army Financial Counselling: Aurora Energy contributes $70,000 per annum to the Salvation Army to facilitate financial counselling services to energy consumers in need.
The above examples demonstrate the wide range of support offered by retailers across the industry, making it clear that the regulatory protections customers are entitled to are merely a starting point for how retailers engage with the diverse needs of a customer base doing it tough. Support programs will vary from retailer to retailer, however it is clear that there is an industry-wide drive to support and provide advice to vulnerable customers. The message for customers is clear: we’re here to help, ring your retailer as soon as you can if you think you might get into payment difficulty so that you can be supported.
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