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Cautious optimism - an appropriate welcome to The Energy Charter

A collaborative industry initiative aimed at rebuilding consumer confidence in the energy sector

EWON and its Ombudsman peers has been, for some time, calling for the energy industry to improve customer service and its contribution to increasing energy affordability.  Therefore, having been invited to contribute in a small part to its evolution, I was pleased to be invited to the launch of The Energy Charter – the result of 17 energy businesses from across the supply chain collaborating, over the past 15 months, to achieve better outcomes for customers. 

Energy Charter principles

There are five principles: 
 

  1. We will put customers at the centre of our business and the energy system
  2. We will improve energy affordability for customers
  3. We will provide energy safely, sustainably and reliably
  4. We will improve the customer experience
  5. We will support customers facing vulnerable circumstances

Many of the complaints we receive at EWON, whether they are about high bills, transfer issues or customer service, arise from providers not putting customers first. The first of the five Energy Charter principles addresses this issue directly. When implemented effectively, this principle alone will make a significant difference and should lead to a fall in complaints to energy companies and Ombudsman offices. 

A key factor of Principle 4 indicates a big turnaround for the energy company Charter signatories: recognition that it is their responsibility to engage customers and to deliver a product that does not require customer engagement to get the best deal.  

For too long energy company focus has been on requiring customers to engage with the energy market.  Electricity is an essential service, not a discretional purchase product; further it is a homogenous product.  More simply put, for many consumers, their requirement is just to turn the lights, heater/cooler or oven on and pay an affordable bill.  This is a very significant change particularly for customer who are unable, through circumstances or choice, to engage.

EWON equally supports the other three principles – together, and when achieved, all five will see the energy sector ensuring that all customers are equitably treated and benefit from technological advancements that will make energy more affordable.  

Accountability through culture and behaviour change

I, like many others, am particularly interested in the accountability aspect of the Charter. Signatories are required to submit disclosures about their performance, for review by an independent accountability panel chaired by a relevant expert with high standing. This information will be used to track providers’ achievements and inform policy work aimed at strengthening consumer protections.

Leaders from the consumer and energy sectors agreed that achieving the objectives of the Charter will be very challenging.  Firstly, it will require open recognition of the gap that exists today in service delivery across the energy supply chain when first reporting against each of the Principles later this year. 

A critical factor endorsed by energy CEOs is that this is not ‘just another complaints/regulatory initiative’.  Instead it was openly stated that to be successful, each energy company CEO needs to lead cultural and behavioural change across their organisations, starting from the Board and Senior Management, and reaching right through to frontline staff. Tinkering around the edges will not bring about the change the Charter is aiming for and that their customers deserve.

It was also recognised that there will be many negative and cynical naysayers who will say it can’t be done.  Positive cynicism was coined as being the more appropriate lens which should be applied and leveraged into positive action. 

The 17 energy companies who have worked together for 15 months to develop The Energy Charter acknowledge that embedding it will be an ongoing collective effort focused on continuous improvement. They also welcome other energy providers to become signatories to the Energy Charter over the journey.

On this basis, let’s all take a positive approach to receiving the first report card from signatories in November 2019 which, if reflective of the spirit shared at the launch, will openly report the gap between current status and the advancements which should be achieved over the next few years.