Vulnerable Customers may not be aware of Important Protections – Highlighted as Part of CRU Consumer Survey

Vulnerable Customers may not be aware of Important Protections – Highlighted as Part of CRU Consumer Survey
  • Survey evaluates customer attitudes towards the energy markets and examines the effects of market competition
  • CRU highlights customer protections available for vulnerable gas and electricity customers
  • Level of savings still the main reason for switching, while suppliers continue to have high Consumer Satisfaction Levels at 88% for electricity and 89% for gas.

 

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) has published the results of a consumer survey targeted at measuring consumer engagement, experience and attitudes in the residential and SME electricity and gas markets in Ireland.

Approximately 2,000 residential customers and 650 SME’s participated in the survey. The purpose of the survey is to provide additional consumer-based insights to the market monitoring activities of the CRU, to contribute to consumer protection polices and codes of practice for energy companies and to further empower customers in the competitive energy market.

The survey, which was conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes Ltd and The Research Perspective Ltd, has been carried out annually since 2011. The 2019 results confirm some continuing trends evident from previous years, including a high consumer satisfaction level regarding suppliers reported across the sector.

 

Vulnerable customers

The CRU recognises that customers may find themselves in vulnerable situations at different times, which may result in customers having difficulties when dealing with their energy suppliers and network operators. Because of this additional protection are in place to assist those who need it.

To avail of these extra protections a customer should be:

  • critically dependent on electrically powered equipment, which includes but is not limited to life protecting devices and assistive technologies to support independent living and medical equipment, or
  • particularly vulnerable to disconnection during winter months for reasons of advanced age or physical, sensory, intellectual or mental health.

 

When signing up to a new contract a supplier must check if the customer is eligible to register as a vulnerable customer. Customers should contact their supplier directly to request registration if they meet these requirements and are not already registered.

Customers can register on either the Priority Services Register or the Special Services Register depending on their needs. Once registered a customer will get added level of protection in relation to certain areas such as customer communications, disconnections and other important areas. For example:

  • Suppliers are required to ensure that all registered vulnerable customers are on the most economic tariff available for their chosen payment method and billing format
  • Customers who are vulnerable to supply interruption have additional safeguards against disconnection.
  • Customers who have special communication requirements, must be given alternative means of communication.

The survey found that the incidence of consumers who are aware that it is possible to register with the supplier if dependent on electrically powered medical equipment (priority status) has increased and now stands at 39%, with awareness being higher among those aged 65+.

5% of electricity respondents indicated that someone in their household is eligible for registration as a priority customer but only 56% of those are registered. The most common reason cited for not registering was a lack of awareness of the protections for vulnerable customers and of the registration process. With regard to the special services register, almost 10% of electricity and gas customers indicated that they are personally eligible for the special services register but just 28% of those are registered.

 

Bill Delivery, Clarity and Understanding


Over half of electricity customers pay their bills via direct debit (higher among Energia and SSE Airtricity). 31% of respondents say they arrange to pay the bill once they review it, while 1 in 10 are on a level payment plan and a further 1 in 10 use a prepayment credit meter.

In comparison, 59% of gas customers pay their bills via direct debit (higher among SSE Airtricity and Energia) while 1 in 5 pay when they receive the bill and 5% are on a level pay plan. 15% use a prepayment credit meter.

The proportion of customers receiving their bill by email has continued to increase since 2012. 45% of electricity customers and 61% of gas customers now receive their energy bill by email.  This is compared to 31% of electricity customers in 2017 and 39% of gas customers in 2017. The 26-45 age group have the highest percentage of email/online billing recipients.

Close to 25% of electricity and gas customers indicate that their bill does not give them an understanding of their consumption and associated pricing. This lack of understanding may make it harder for these customers to manage their consumption or decide on the relative value of a switch to an alternative supplier.

 

Competition and Switching Rates

Consumers’ ability to understand market offers is an important dynamic in a competitive market. The research shows that 85% of electricity customers claim to have some understanding of current electricity offers on the market, with Energia and SSE Airtricity customers claiming the highest level of understanding. Those who switched within the past 12 months also claim to have a higher level of ‘good understanding’ of current offers vs non switchers (42% vs 27%).

Consumers were asked about the ease of comparing offers, to which 58% of electricity customers claimed that they find it difficult to compare offers. In order to understand the channels used for comparison, the survey investigated the usage of price comparison websites to compare offers.  The results showed that 1 in 4 of all adults claimed to have used a price comparison website to compare electricity offers – up significantly over the past number of years.

When it comes to switching energy supplier, half of electricity and gas consumers surveyed said they have never switched supplier (51% electricity and 55% gas). Electricity and gas switching rates peak among the 25-64-year-old age group.  Among those who have switched, consumers report similar levels of switching within the last 12 months across both gas and electricity.

Among the online gas and electricity samples, the incidence of last 12 months switching is in line with the population, thus there is no evidence to suggest that switching is an issue for more vulnerable customers.

The results of the 2019 Consumer Survey can be found here.

 

The CRU Commissioner with responsibility for the retail sector, Aoife MacEvilly, said: “This survey provides the CRU with important insights and evidence to enhance outcomes for energy customers.  Many of the results are welcome, such as high levels of consumer satisfaction with energy suppliers.  However, the CRU is concerned that many vulnerable customers are not aware of important energy market protections. Following on the findings of the survey, we will continue to work with industry and stakeholders to increase awareness and uptake of the additional protections for vulnerable consumers.  The CRU has a role in protecting all energy and water consumers, however, it is particularly important to ensure that vulnerable consumers avail of their rights and protections.”