STEP project is overhauling its delivery of energy advice to help energy poor consumers during COVID-19. William Baker from Citizens Advice, the organisation coordinating STEP’ s advice efforts, explains how STEP is going about this.

Adapting energy advice to the COVID-19 lock-down

Before COVID-19, the STEP delivery model was face-to-face. Consumer organisations gave one-to-one advice to the energy poor (including home visits for some) and trained front line workers either to provide energy advice themselves or to refer clients to consumer organisations for advice.

Home confinement has undermined this model substantially, just when the need for energy advice has become more important than ever. Many people have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts. Most people are confined to their homes because of the lock-down and so are spending more money on energy than normal: price comparison site U-switch estimates an extra £16 per month on average in the UK. As with many illnesses, people coming out of hospital after treatment for COVID-19 need warm, affordable to heat homes to aid recovery.

STEP partners have risen to the challenge by developing new ways to deliver advice and training. We are using social media and remote engagement with other local support services to make both clients and front line workers aware of our services. We are developing e-learning courses for front line workers and clients. We are running webinars on particular energy topics for advice staff. And, critically, we are moving most of our face to face advice to telephone advice from advisers’ homes.

Home-based telephone advice

Providing advice from advisers’ homes is no mean feat. Many of our clients are vulnerable and telling us sensitive details about their circumstances. We have to make sure that our advice is confidential, just as it would be face-to-face. This means calls take place in a private room where no one can overhear the call.

Many advisers will be using their own equipment and telephones. They will have to make sure their security protocols are just as stringent as those used in the office and that they adhere to all GDPR requirements. They will also need access to their organisation’s Customer Relationship Management system and knowledge bank.

Of equal importance are the skills required to give advice over the telephone. Advisers won’t be able to interpret body language or have the same degree of certainty that clients fully understand. This means lots of recaps, repetitions and checks that the client is following them. Appointments will often take longer than those in the office. While we want to provide our clients with as good a quality service as possible, we know the new arrangements are not ideal. While some consumers are quite happy with telephone advice, many prefer face-to-face advice, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances or, in the UK, for those for whom English is a second language. Indeed, advice services that have moved provision from predominantly face-to-face to predominantly telephone have often seen a decline in take-up by older people, people with lower education attainment and with English as a second language.

STEP after lock-down

STEP envisages some of our changes to delivery will continue post-COVID-19. For example, front line workers may well find e-learning more convenient than attending training courses at set times in venues away from their offices. However, we will need to make particular efforts to reach clients who prefer face-to-face advice or who are confined to their homes regardless of COVID-19, for example frail older people and people with long-term health conditions and disabilities. Our extensive client monitoring systems should tell us who we need to reach once lock-down ends.

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The STEP project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 847080.