Last week I was delighted to be part of an expert panel of Vulnerability Champions during a breakout session on Day Two of the 2021 Utility Week Consumer Vulnerability and Debt Conference, where we explored innovation to support vulnerable customers.

Thanks to all those of you who attended the breakout session, and for the positive messages I’ve had following the conference. It’s great that so many enjoyed the session and I’m delighted by the positivity for our Reach:Out service.

Within the session we tackled two key questions:

  1. What are the most innovative things to happen in the sector in recent years related to vulnerability?
  2. What things do we most need innovative solutions for in supporting vulnerable customers? Where are the gaps?

The panel was hosted by energy expert and consumer champion Matthew Cole, Chair of the Fuel Bank Foundation and Energy UK’s Energy Switch Guarantee. Also on the panel was fuel and water poverty expert Jess Cook of National Energy Action and Rachel Ryan-Crisp, vulnerability lead at Southern Water.

It was great to take questions and hear views from the audience, as well as hear the expert opinion of my fellow panellists. There was certainly lots to say on these topics and some healthy and interesting debate ensued – with great points made all round.

Six key themes emerged through the conference and many of these continued to play out during our breakout session. These were:

  • Vulnerable customers are more likely to be digitally excluded
  • Awareness of help and support offered by utility companies to their vulnerable customers is low
  • Partnerships with trusted intermediaries are essential to raise awareness
  • Where greater sensitivity is required, human contact and empathy remain key
  • We need to build on great examples of sharing vulnerability / PSR information (where customers consent) to get a cross-sector standardised solution
  • Low income and vulnerable customers need to be brought on the net zero journey

Many of these echoed long-standing industry challenges and inspired the design of our ReachOut service, which led nicely into some insights I shared with the audience around innovative design approach, including several key takeaways:

  • Innovation should be ongoing, however, timing the launch of a new product or service is key as it needs to match an emerging need or rising challenge
  • Listen to customers and their challenges to help steer and prioritise innovation
  • Look at what you’re developing through the lens of the customer and consider the value exchange (what value are you offering to overcome the customer’s time/effort/cost of engaging and how can you reduce barriers)

These guiding principles helped define our ReachOut service, through which we’ve created a safe, impartial and confidential space. From here, we can proactively speak with customers about their debts, and show them where to access grants, advice and support from charities that help improve financial, mental and physical wellbeing, as well as raise awareness of the support that our clients offer their customers.

We’re delighted that many utility suppliers have partnered with us (including several of the largest) as they see the benefits of the additional support we can offer to their customers in debt who aren’t engaging with them directly. Re-engaging and guiding these customers to sources of support, and back to our clients’ internal teams, helps avoid escalating debts whilst supporting customers with underlying reasons for non-payment.

From the response following the breakout session, it’s clear people are intrigued by ReachOut and how it helps vulnerable people. Why? Well, I think that’s because it’s so different for the industry and it represents a meaningful change in approach to the established collection journey.  It is the only service that proactively contacts an unengaged customer in debt on behalf of the creditor, without having any vested interest in collecting money.

I look forward to the Vulnerability Conference in 2022 (hopefully a return to face to face!) and seeing how far we’ve all come in tackling the issues raised during this conference.  

With the passion and commitment of so many speakers witnessed over two days, I remain optimistic that we’ll continue innovating and improving outcomes for vulnerable customers through what may be tough times ahead.  

Sigma Connected is committed to sharing its cross-sector best practice and insight to further this cause.



About the author


With over 15 years’ experience in debt, having developed a speciality for supporting vulnerable customers, David Murphy is Partnerships, Sales and Solutions Director for ReachOut.


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