A human approach to combating energy poverty

The story of Sandra van Maarseveen

‘As everyone is aware, energy prices skyrocketed in 2022. This has given our Customer Services department a more important role. We do whatever we can to help customers suffering from energy poverty, and proactively suggesting ways to deal with it is central to our efforts. This way we prevent consumers from being cut off from power.’ We’re talking to the director of Eneco’s Customer Services department Sandra van Maarseveen about the impact of increased energy prices.

Sandra says, ‘Eneco’s Customer Services department has over 425 employees. And when you count our partners as well, we actually total more than 1,000 customer-facing specialists. We handle all customer contact for Eneco, as well as for Oxxio and WoonEnergie. We serve not only consumers, but also SME clients and corporate clients. In addition, we are responsible for the back office, which involves taking care of all administrative processes and billing, and handling matters like registering changes of address and all the messaging and service traffic.’

We aim for the balance on the customers’ annual statement to be virtually zero.
Sandra van Maarseveen

Smarter, faster, better

‘In recent years, significant investments have been made in all these aspects of the service by integrating modern IT systems into the service,’ says Sandra. ‘Examples include automatic energy consumption overviews, customer apps, the use of voicebots and chatbots, and social media. Many of our conversations are also recorded, which we then use with speech analytics to gain great insights. This forms our “improvement engine”, determining what is going well, what could be improved and, above all, what is going on with our customers and how can we adjust our services accordingly. In other words – smarter, faster, better.’

Energy is a hot topic

‘Another department we are responsible for is Credit Management, which helps our customers who are struggling to pay their energy bills. In the past, it was a lot less hectic here,’ says Sandra. ‘From a relatively low interest topic, the energy bill has become a hot topic. Due to the increase in energy prices and especially the attention the media is paying to this, energy currently has centre stage, day in, day out. The number of customer conversations at Customer Services has exploded and we receive thousands of calls and chat messages every day. Especially in the period before the 2023 national budget was presented in 2022, when there was still no clarity on an energy price cap and other government measures, it was all hands on deck. Under normal circumstances about 10% of our customers already have difficulty paying their energy bills. In the winter of 2022, there were many more, including many middle-class people. For this customer group, energy suddenly became a serious challenge. This was a tough time for us because emotions flared up quite a bit. Extra attention, training, coaching and breaks and a special psychologist helpline helped our staff get through this time as well as possible.’

On balance, we do everything we can to assist our customers as proactively as possible.

Collection process adjusted

‘Eneco had already adjusted its collection process about eight years ago,’ says Sandra. ‘From a hard approach that was traditionally used in the sector, we have moved to a soft approach. Not only to help the customer better, but also to help the sector. After all, without tackling payment problems at the source, consumers can switch energy companies and take their debt problems with them. And that doesn’t help anyone. In this context, Eneco has also (as the only energy company to date) earned the Keurmerk Warm Incasseren, a quality mark that is awarded based on an assessment of whether a company has a socially responsible, customer-friendly collection policy. With its approach, Eneco opts for a fair and caring collection policy. The number of cut-offs has been reduced from 40,000 per year to about 4,000 per year.’

Explosive increase in the use of the Eneco app

‘First and foremost, we advise customers to monitor their energy consumption as closely as possible,’ Sandra continues. ‘They can do this with the help of the Eneco app, which provides insight into energy consumption down to the smallest detail. After all, the numbers tell the tale. The use of the app has exploded. On average, our customers check it more than once a day. That was certainly not the case in the past. Of all our customers 85% have a smart meter, so past investments are now paying off. Individual customer analyses provide insight into gas consumption for heating and hot water, and power consumption. With our app, the information we provide on our websites, energy saving tips, extra energy-efficient measures, the use of energy coaches and the knowledge of our service engineers, we can really help people lower their energy bills. The support from the government in November and December 2022 (€190 each month for every Dutch household) and the price ceiling that has been in force since 2023 will of course also help. But with customers we also look at their fixed monthly payment. Many consumers have had to increase this amount. I should mention, we try to arrange it in such a way that the balance on the customers’ annual statement is virtually zero. We do this by providing customers interim advice if we see that their fixed monthly payment is too high or too low compared to their most recent consumption and contract prices. That is the best way to help people keep their finances in order.’

Eneco welcomes its quality mark for a socially responsible, customer-friendly collection policy.

Arrears payment plans and debt assistance

‘To help customers better, our policy for arrears payment plans has also been made more flexible,’ says Sandra. ‘For example, customers can choose to extend their payment arrangements, making their fixed monthly payment lower. And for the people who are really struggling, there is also other help. Eneco works together with Geldfit on free and anonymous advice and tips for saving energy. In addition, support is also available from the Emergency Fund, a pot of €50 million, in which Eneco has also invested. With this we can help 100,000 people. And then there are what’s called “energy regulators”, who drop by to talk to people and really help them.’

Early detection helps

Sandra concludes, ‘If things really get out of hand, a debt mediation team is ready to help consumers. We also work closely with municipal authorities to identify payment problems at an early stage. If necessary, we inform municipal authorities when someone has gone into payment arrears so that, once they become aware of this situation, they can offer help. Thanks to an amendment to the Municipal Debt Assistance Act (Wet gemeentelijk schuldhulpverlening), which came into effect on 1 January 2021, municipal authorities can help society’s less fortunate sooner when they run into problems due to debts – not only for energy, but also telecom and/or rent. Early detection really helps. So, on balance, we do everything we can to assist our customers as proactively as possible. After all, we have a socially responsible function.’

Key figures

Period of turbulence and change

It has been a period of turbulence and change, both for our customers and for ourselves.

Read Eneco annual report 2022