Debt management: can utilities balance automation and the human touch?

Jun 3, 2024

Written By

Jon Slade

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Automated platforms are crucial for energy suppliers. They provide good levels of customer service while keeping cost-to-serve as low as possible. By automating some of the most repetitive and non-value-adding tasks, and leaving the rest in the capable hands of customer service teams, utilities can usually strike a balance between efficiency and flexibility. 

But what happens when dealing with sensitive issues, such as debt management? Can this be safely delegated to an automated platform, while maintaining a compassionate approach? And are automated tools able to handle the complex, and sometimes bespoke, energy requirements of business customers? 


When automation becomes a necessity

Rising levels of energy debt, together with the need to keep up with continuous market and regulatory changes, mean that efficient automation has become a must for utilities.  

In debt management, for example, manually implementing and monitoring payment plans, managing collection lifecycles, and contacting customers who defaulted on their payment agreements would be simply overwhelming. 

Over-relying on manual tasks without the support of effective tech can impact utilities in several ways. Firstly, the inability to keep up can negatively affect CSAT rates, at a time when utilities in the UK are already experiencing decreased customer satisfaction. 

Putting too much pressure on overstretched teams can also affect staff morale,  leading to high turnover rates and potentially poor levels of service. According to a recent survey by trade union Prospect, more than one in three (34%) professionals working in the energy sector feel overwhelmed or highly stressed most of the time, or even every day. 

Managing customers’ debt without adequate tools can further increase customer agents’ fatigue, resulting in decreased productivity. Of course, this becomes even more challenging when customer agents are working with inflexible or outdated platforms, which don’t support them effectively. 


Automation, done right

Automating routine processes can help energy suppliers overcome these challenges and efficiently manage customer debt. This approach not only facilitates customers in repaying their arrears but also helps utilities maximise recovery, as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

“Between 2021 and 2022, a significant number of utilities had to stop trading as a result of soaring wholesale costs,” warns ENSEK’s CEO, Jon Slade. “The rising level of energy debt once again poses challenges for energy companies, which must be proactive in finding suitable solutions. In this sense, tech with dedicated debt management functions can be a valuable tool.”

An automated platform with a dedicated debt management module, like Ignition, can help manage collection lifecycles and streamline routine tasks like billing, sending reminders, and payment processing. It can also help ensure that customers are always paying the right amount, stopping debt from accumulating. In time, this can foster greater trust and loyalty from customers too.

Moreover, Ignition's sophisticated insights and analytics can help identify at-risk customers early on, before they fall into debt. This includes data for I&C customers with complex energy requirements, or customers who rely on bespoke managed services. 

It’s also helpful to implement solutions that automatically ring-fence debt, like Payment Plans and Regular Payment Schemes. These allow customers to manage debt separately from their main accounts. This can help customers take better control of their energy bills, paying back accrued debt while keeping current invoices clear.  

When implemented correctly, automated debt management solutions can maximise efficiency and enhance transparency, preventing queries and complaints. Turning to an experienced energy technology provider can make this a hassle-free process.


Striking a balance

Nevertheless, the human touch remains essential for tailored support or to help customers with complex or bespoke energy needs. For example, human intervention remains necessary to set up a flexible and affordable payment plan tailored to the customer’s circumstances.

To strike a balance, utilities must first of all invest in a tech stack that gives customer agents what they need to solve queries promptly, and ideally at first contact. It’s also important to invest in training. First of all, to ensure agents know how to make the most of automation, but to also equip them with the communication skills they need to manage customer debt compassionately. 

To strike the right balance, it can be helpful to integrate automation with human oversight. A platform like Ignition will flag issues requiring human intervention, such as vulnerable customers, those that have repeatedly defaulted on their payment plans, or customers with complex I&C contracts or bespoke managed services.

There's no easy answer to helping customers out of energy debt. However, with energy debt levels only set to increase, this can also be the ideal time for utilities to question their debt collection processes and implement more flexible and efficient solutions. Rethinking some of these processes will offer the opportunity to future-proof ways of working, gaining and maintaining a significant competitive edge. 


If you would like to know how we can help you improve your debt management processes, book a free 30-min discovery call with our team.

Have a query? Click the link below to get in touch.