Identification of Customers Affected by Hardship: Rules and Steps for Retailers

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In the retail sector, particularly within the energy market, identifying customers experiencing hardship and providing appropriate assistance is not only social obligation but also a regulatory requirement. This article outlines the specific rules that apply generally to retailers and the steps they should take to assist customers facing hardship, as stipulated by the National Energy Retail Rules Version.

Understanding Hardship in the Retail Context

A retailer’s customer hardship policy must include a clear description of the process for assessing the eligibility of a customer for its hardship program. This process is crucial as it determines which customers are in need of assistance.

A challenge that is faced by consumers is the understandability of a retailer’s hardship policy. Such policies seek to translate complex regulatory obligations into language that can be understood and actioned by consumers. Retailers should employ visual tools such as graphics, tables, or flow charts to illustrate the steps involved, aiding customers in understanding the process.

Steps for Early Identification of Hardship

Retailers are required to set out steps to identify customers experiencing payment difficulties due to hardship early on.

It is critical that retailers do more than rely on customers’ self identification. Proactive identification may involve active review of customer accounts, file notes on accounts, and the promotion of assistance available. A proactive approach ensures timely assistance and may involve monitoring payment patterns, customer interactions, and other indicators of financial stress.

Informing Customers and Providing Policy Copies

Once a customer is identified as experiencing hardship, the retailer must:

  1. Inform the customer of the retailer’s hardship policy as soon as practicable.
  2. Provide the customer with a copy of the policy upon request, at no expense.

It’s important to note that a breach of this obligation is reportable in Half Yearly Reports and may attract penalties for non-compliance.

Accessibility of Hardship Policy

The hardship policy must be easily accessible, both online and offline. Retailers must:

  1. Ensure the policy is accessible on their website via a clearly marked URL/hyperlink.
  2. Provide the policy in printable formats.
  3. Make the policy available to customers who cannot access the website, for example, by posting a copy to them.

Communication with Diverse Customers

Retailers must effectively communicate about their hardship policy with customers who have diverse communication needs, including:

  1. Customers without internet access.
  2. Customers in remote areas.
  3. Customers with low English literacy.
  4. Customers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Timely and Clear Information

Retailers must provide clear information about the assistance available under their hardship policy in a timely manner when relevant, including when contacted by a customer.

Systems for Meeting Obligations

Retailers must have systems in place to meet their obligations with respect to customer hardship under the Retail Law, Retail Rules, the Guideline, and the retailer’s customer hardship policy.

Recommendations for Retailers

To comply with the National Energy Retail Rules and effectively assist customers facing hardship, retailers should:

  1. Develop a clear, step-by-step process for identifying and assessing customers experiencing hardship.
  2. Utilise visual aids on their website to explain the hardship assessment process.
  3. Train staff to recognize signs of hardship and to handle such situations with sensitivity.
  4. Implement systems to provide timely information about the hardship policy to customers.
  5. Ensure the hardship policy is easily accessible, considering customers with diverse needs.
  6. Regularly review and update the hardship policy to reflect any changes in the law or best practices.
  7. Maintain records of all interactions with customers regarding hardship and assistance provided.
  8. Report any breaches of hardship obligations in the required Reports.

By following these recommendations, retailers can not only fulfill their regulatory obligations but also provide meaningful support to customers in need, fostering a positive relationship and potentially improving customer retention.

Defined Terms

customer hardship policya policy as submitted by the retailer to the AER under section 43 of the Law.
the Lawmeans the National Energy Retail Law;

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