#BetterTogether – Know your Customers and Communities initiative in action

#BetterTogether – Know your Customers and Communities is a key initiative of the Energy Charter focused on ensuring diverse customer and community voices are heard at all levels within businesses, and across the sector, to shape the expectations of the energy industry.

Delivering against Principle 1: We will put customers at the centre of our business and the energy system, the latest example of #BetterTogether – Know your Customers and Communities initiative in action is APA’s Stakeholder Advisory Panel. Similar to other industry-leading customer and stakeholder engagement groups from Energy Charter signatories such as Essential Energy and Aurora Energy, APA’s Stakeholder Advisory Panel is designed to share what they’re doing with stakeholders and the broader community, as well as gain insights from them about their interests, concerns and expectations.

“The panel will act as a sounding board to APA on policy matters, strategic programs and plans, as well as identifying additional matters that panel members consider of importance to their stakeholders. Listening to our stakeholders and responding to their needs is key to our purpose to strengthen communities through responsible energy.” – Nives Matosin, Chair of the #BetterTogether – Know your Customers and Communities and Manager Regulatory at APA Group

The inaugural panel comprises senior representatives from a range of high-profile and diverse Australian organisations:

  • Council of Small Business of Australia
  • St Vincent de Paul
  • Energy Consumers Australia
  • National Native Title Council
  • Australian Energy Council
  • Clean Energy Finance Corporation
  • Energy Users Association of Australia
  • Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia

The establishment of this panel is a significant milestone for APA and represents a step-change in how they engage with their customers, consumers, and the communities in which they work.

Reflecting their commitment to transparency and accountability, APA will make a summary of the panel’s discussions at each of their meetings available on their website. In addition, feedback from the panel will inform new Stakeholder Engagement Forums to be held at least twice a year.

The #BetterTogether – Know your Customers and Communities initiative is led by APA and Essential Energy together with Endeavour Energy, Energy Queensland, Jemena, Horizon Power, Powerlink Queensland and TransGrid consulting with National Consumer Roundtable. Since inception in 2019, they have delivered robust and fit-for-purpose customer, community and stakeholder engagement activities including a Better Practice Toolkit for customer engagement and a Shared Learning Customer Engagement Platform to highlight better examples of customer and stakeholder engagement across signatories. For more information visit #BetterTogether

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#BetterTogether – Collaborating across the energy supply chain to improve the experience of customers connecting to gas in Victoria

New gas connection requirements have differed between each distribution business across Victoria making it complicated in some cases and not consistent for customers and others in the supply chain such as building developers. Through the architecture of the Energy Charter, energy distributors Australian Gas Networks (AGN), Multinet Gas Networks (MGN), and AusNet Services collaborated with retailers Origin Energy, AGL and EnergyAustralia to run a trial and now fully implement the single gas connection process with all retailers; making  it easier for customers to connect to gas in Victoria, irrespective of their postcode area, improving the customer experience.

“Having different processes for new gas connections across three energy distribution networks has been a long-standing issue in Victoria and was further highlighted in the results of each distribution business Customer Satisfaction Survey. We wanted to come together to agree on a single process to improve the experience of our customers and we’re making great progress.” Nadia Janevski – Manager, Customer & Support Services at APA Group (AGN Service Partner).

Collaboration began in 2019 where the three Victorian gas distribution networks, AGN, MGN, and AusNet Services, came together to co-create a site readiness document to standardise ‘site ready’ requirements and technical differences across the state. Site readiness, for example, means when the site is ready for a gas service to be constructed, ie no scaffolding, no building material, clean site and safe access etc… on the building site.

The site readiness document standards were then shared more broadly with builders to contribute to the feedback loop and improvement.  This was key in ensuring we were focussing on their problem and not what we thought was their problem.

“There were some challenges, but we all had a vision and were able to work together to standardise site readiness into one document and to improve the connection process for all our customers.” James Wong, Marketing & Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Australian Gas Infrastructure Group

The second stage of the collaboration focused on co-creating a ‘Vic New Connection 10 step process’ to ensure energy distributors could connect customers at the right time and meet their expectations. This primarily improves the experience of residential customers making up approximately 80% of new gas connections.

The ‘Vic New Connection 10 step process includes Builders Information I Multinet Gas

Buy-in from energy retailers was easy as a streamlined process, and consistent clear communication, helps them deliver a better service to customers. Customer support teams in call centres can now follow one new gas connections process, rather than three. This will really improve the experience of customers who are connecting gas for the first time.

From here, the focus will be on developing a communication and engagement strategy to embed the process across Victoria. #BetterTogether champions are undertaking activities such as communicating to and educating builders and making the process available for download on distributor websites. They will also share the process through different channels to get the message out more broadly.

Nadia Janevski – Manager, Customer & Support Services at APA Group said “It’s a work in progress, changing behaviours takes time, but we’re getting there.”

#BetterTogether – Making progress with a first of its kind Energy Network Vulnerable Customer Assistance Program

Energy Charter signatories are making progress towards their commitment of supporting customers facing vulnerable circumstances – Principle 5 of the Energy Charter. Leading the way for energy networks is AGIG who has developed an organisation wide vulnerable customer strategy and will be designing and delivering a Vulnerable Customer Assistance Program (VCAP) starting in South Australia and Queensland in 2021.  

“As a network business there are opportunities for us to do more for those customers who are in need. Through our customer engagement, we understand our customers expect us to be there for those in the community that need us more, be it when we’re in the field, or taking a call. This program of activities positions us to identify and engage with customers at risk and provides tailored services to prevent them falling into hardship, so they can get back on track.”- Kristen Pellew, Head of Stakeholder Engagement at Australian Gas Infrastructure Group (AGIG)

Traditionally, the provision of assistance to vulnerable customers has been the domain of retailers, not-for-profit organisations and governments. Through our stakeholder engagement process, the development of the Energy Charter (which AGIG is a signatory to), and the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that we have a larger role to play in supporting our vulnerable customers.

Here at AGIG, we are committed to delivering for all customers, including ensuring our services are accessible and safe for those who are most vulnerable in our community.  To bring this program to life, we prioritised the elements of the VCAP during a series of three co-design workshops with experts and stakeholders from the social and community services sector, as part of our AGN South Australian Access Arrangement. 

These workshops were focused on the topic: How might AGN better support vulnerable customers – now and in the future? Workshop participants were experts from the social and community services sector including financial hardship, disability, mental health, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people, and older Australians. Prioritised ideas were captured by KPMG and documented in a Final Report. From there we conducted further engagement with stakeholders to refine a proposal which was ultimately endorsed by the AER.

Looking forward, our next step will be to engage collaboratively with key stakeholders, partners organisations and staff to ensure AGIG continues to improve it’s understanding of customer vulnerability and capability to respond appropriately. From there we will to design and operationalise a fit for purpose program in order to deliver the required services in partnership with others.

New services as part of the VCAP for those who are in vulnerable circumstances may include:

  • Free gas safety appliance checks, for South Australian householders to keep them safe
  • Financial support for switching to more efficient gas appliances for customers to help manage their bills
  • During a planned or unplanned outage, AGIG will provide tailored support, such as temporary cooking, heating or washing needs.  
  • Vulnerable customers can access funding for emergency appliance repairs, keeping those in need connected
  • We will help engage, identify and refer vulnerable customers for support, as AGN field crews have face to face interactions with customers and the community.
  • Customers who are vulnerable will only tell us their story once and our call centre and field crews will provide a tailored service

AGN’s VCAP includes a dedicated vulnerable customer role, priority services register using an upgraded CRM system, gas appliance safety checks and emergency repair assistance and support to help access to more efficient appliances.

“We’ve reviewed the journey of a gas customer, and to make it work, we will be partnering with others in the supply chain, government & community organisations to implement innovative solutions that will improve outcomes for customers in vulnerable circumstances.” – Chris Fidler, Multinet Gas Head of Customer and Market Services 

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#BetterTogether – Networks and retailers working together to ensure customers stay connected

During an industry forum in late 2019, Essential Energy shared outcomes of their ‘Knock before you disconnect’ trial that involved field crews delivering letters to customers advising them to contact their retailer regarding outstanding payments. 80% of disconnections were cancelled and customers stayed connected. ‘Knock before you disconnect’ is now being trialled on AGIG’s Multinet Gas Networks (MGN) distribution network with retailers Alinta Energy, EnergyAustralia and Powershop as a #BetterTogether initiative of the Energy Charter.

Essential Energy’s Head of Customer Experience, Belinda Kallmier explains “Following our successful trial last year, when we receive a request to disconnect a customer due to non-payment by a retailer, we consistently attempt to hand-deliver a Notice of Intent to Disconnect directly to customers.  This visit encourages the customer to quickly get in touch with their retailer to discuss their options to avoid the disconnection which is a better outcome for all our customers. Our contract partner who deliver the letters has also said this is a better experience.”

In December 2020, the #BetterTogether ‘Knock before you disconnect’ trial with Energy Charter signatories Australian Gas Infrastructure Group (AGIG) , EnergyAustralia, Powershop and participating partner Alinta Energy commenced. AGIG fieldwork staff began contacting customers within their MGN distribution area in Victoria, via letterbox drops, reminding them to contact their retailer regarding outstanding payments.

“After learning about ‘Knock before you disconnect’ from Essential Energy, it was quickly identified that the benefits aligned with the AGIG vision and values of delivering to customers, and was an initiative that we wanted to adopt to service our customers rather than leaving them without gas supply.” – Chris Fidler, Head of Customer & Market Services at Multinet Gas Networks

In the first three months, the number of disconnection service orders received from trial participants (191 service orders received from January to March 2021) have been historically lower as a result of industry restrictions on raising disconnection orders. Participating partners are also currently working together to assess the number of customers ‘engaging’ with retailers following contact and letterbox drop by Multinet Gas Network.

The early stage of the trial identified some challenges experienced by Multinet Gas Network. Field crews found some customers had not received a bill addressed to them, but to the previous occupant, and therefore were not opened. There were also business sites vacated due to business closure, making engagement through letterbox drop unlikely.

Key learnings such as these are being shared with other Energy Charter signatories who are running similar trials, or considering commencing trials, within their distribution areas including Endeavour Energy, Essential Energy & Australian Gas Networks.

Multinet Gas Network aims to continue the current trial with Alinta Energy, EnergyAustralia and Powershop, with a focus on capturing ongoing performance data to measure success rates and apply learnings and outcomes for future improvements. 

A six-month Energy Charter milestone report will also identify further opportunities to extend the trial and engage additional retailers for process improvement feedback and participation as the current trial size is only relatively small compared to the volume of disconnection orders received across the Multinet Network area.

“The Knock before you Disconnect #BetterTogether initiative is a great example of signatories leveraging the infrastructure of Energy Charter to sharing learnings and collaborate across the supply change to achieve better outcomes for customers.”  – Sabiene Heindl, Executive Director, The Energy Charter

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#BetterTogether – As times get tougher, Energy Charter retailers offer extra support to vulnerable customers

With the Federal Government’s JobKeeper coming to a close, many Australians are set to experience tougher times ahead due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And at this critical time, Energy Charter retailers are offering extra support to assure customers that help is still available, putting Energy Charter commitments into action.

A number of Energy Charter retailers are continuing to offer support to their customers and communities impacted by COVID-19.

Aurora Energy, Tasmania’s largest energy retailer, is trialling a new payment support program as part of a broader “We can help” campaign to incentivise engagement with Aurora’s Your Energy Support (YES) hardship program. The YES program helps customers to get on top of their bills when they need it most, offering affordable payment plans, energy efficiency advice and protection from disconnection.

From March 2021, customers on Aurora’s YES program, who are meeting their payment commitments at their quarterly review, will now receive a credit to the value of their next instalment (up to $200). Effectively, Aurora will make one payment on the customer’s behalf each quarter for the next six months to help them get back on track.  

“We recognise that there are still challenging times ahead for homes and businesses in Tasmania due to the pandemic, and we’re committed to doing what we can to assist,” Chief Operating Officer, Kane Ingham said.

The extra support is being promoted alongside existing initiatives, including Aurora’s $5M COVID-19 Customer Support Fund with the key message being, “We can help”.

“The new payment support program is designed to help those customers who need it the most. It’s also a reminder to those who haven’t been in contact with us that support is available – all you need to do is ask,” Mr Ingham said.

This is how an agile business response puts the Energy Charter principles directly into effect for better outcomes for customers. To find out more about extra support available, please visit your energy retailer’s website.

#BetterTogether – COVID-19 Customer Vulnerability Insights – Wave 2, Q1, 2021

Supported by Energy Charter signatories Jemena, ActewAGL, Energy Queensland, Essential Energy and Powershop, together with Simply Energy, we are excited to share the Report and Placemat for the Wave 2, COVID-19 Consumer Vulnerability Research – Quarter 1, March 2021.

This research was conducted by Deloitte to understand the degree of customer vulnerability, as well as customers’ consumption and sentiment towards energy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic via survey between February 11th to February 21st 2021. It relevantly found:

  • 36% of people are optimistic about Australia’s economic direction
  • 50% of people agreed that COVID-19 had increased their stress levels
  • 41% of people on JobSeeker reported that financial stress keeps them up at night
  • 36% of people indicated that they are spending more on energy bills over the last 3 months
  • A range of survey responses are trending positively (when compared to Wave 1), pointing to signs of recovery
  • The pandemic has increased stress levels for many, and significant concern about the lasting impacts of COVID-19 will see that trend likely continue
  • The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt more significantly by vulnerable groups. But it is JobSeekers who are falling further into hardship
  • There is an upward trend in both those receiving and potentially needing support, in response to the increase in energy bills and the balancing of household spend

The snapshot Placemat and full Report are now available on Energy Charter website.