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Customers at the forefront in a crisis, and beyond

An article by Duncan McCombie, Customer Engagement Group Chair. 


Responding to the unfamiliar demonstrates the depth, flexibility and capability of a business.  Responding to a crisis like COVID-19, also says a lot about the culture and resilience of that company.  As Chair of the independent Customer Engagement Group at Western Power Distribution (WPD), I have had the opportunity to see how a critical link in getting electricity to homes and businesses across England and Wales has responded to our collective crisis.

Events and the unexpected caused by severe weather, such as storms and snow, are usual seasonal issues for the 6,500 staff at WPD, as they keep our lights on.  A global pandemic with significant government interventions impacting every aspect of its daily operations, is another matter altogether.

Staff safety and well-being was the top priority.  While homeworking was applied for all those who could from the start – with over 1,000 laptops built to facilitate homeworking in around ten days - the continuation of repairs and activity to keep essential services operating required key staff to continue to work on site, in offices, at their contact centre and in control rooms to ensure services meet customer needs and regulatory requirements.

WPD is the Distribution Network Operator (DNO) responsible for the network of substations, cables and connections that get electricity from the National Grid to homes and businesses.  At the start of the lockdown, as with other companies, WPD had teams of people working in offices responding to customers: if the power went off, or they needed a new connection or wanted to install an electric car charger.  The rapid move to a home working approach meant many staff were working from home, still answering inbound calls in seconds, maintaining the high satisfaction customers expect from WPD.  There were no plans in place for this exceptional transformation and the ability of the teams and managers deliver in such a short time, without impacting service, demonstrates the agility and customer focus engrained in WPD.

As a Customer Engagement Group (CEG), we have a key focus on how the company supports customers, particularly vulnerable customers currently and for the next price review period (2023-2028).  The company already has an extensive support package with over 200,000 customers benefiting from additional support and assistance through their Priority Services and fuel poverty support schemes each year.

'In This Together'

By rapidly developing and implementing their “In This Together” - Community Matters Fund of £500,000 the company responded to the significant additional pressure on established and fledgling support networks in communities, supporting domestic customers.  Over 300 networks, charities, community groups and local councils secured funding, meaning over 400,000 people (and rising) directly benefited from the fund at this challenging time for them.  WPD also provided support in kind, using staff and vehicles to deliver much needed additional support in communities across their operating areas in Wales and England.

There is no doubt the economic effect of the crisis will have an impact on WPD, at a time when we as the CEG are challenging their business plan development assumptions and process and the regulator is waiting in the wings to scrutinise their final submission in what is stacking up to be a very challenging price review.

Customers have been clear as to the importance of the company continuing to invest in supporting the transition to a low carbon future and improving the long-term resilience of the network.  As further research is underway, we will be looking in detail at any change in customers’ views following the pandemic, and how they may influence the approach adopted in the WPD business plan.

There is little doubt the company will face challenges in its investment plans and the regulator will have to be agile in considering the approach to embed the lessons learnt, and evolving needs of customers.

It is essential customers’ and stakeholders’ evolving views continue to play their part in influencing the next business plan as well as our collective progress to a low carbon future, with energy efficiency measures in homes and business and renewable energy measures linked to the network.  Maximising the existing infrastructure in local as well as regional and national networks will be one element to enable delivery of declared climate emergencies in local Councils and will support moves for decarbonisation.

Across the last quarter, both company and communities have demonstrated a great resilience and ability to adapt with astounding efforts demonstrated everywhere.  This rekindled community spirit of partnership and engagement allowed rapid change.  They led to challenges of existing assumptions about what is possible and led to new solutions being implemented.  The same approach that is essential for our move to a net zero carbon future and achieving an integrated approach to meet the 2050 target.

Duncan McCombie, Chair of the Customer Engagement Group at Western Power Distribution