New Zealand utility focuses on customer communication

Doug Heffernan,
Chief Executive,
Mighty River Power
Auckland, New Zealand — (METERING.COM) — June 25, 2007 – Mercury Energy of New Zealand has announced a range of new initiatives to improve its ability to identify and assist vulnerable customers who are medically dependent or suffer from financial hardship. The utility’s redesigned processes, effective today, follow an extensive review of its customer and credit management systems in the wake of the death of one of the utility’s customers who had been disconnected but who needed power for medical reasons, which the utility was not aware of.

Mercury Energy is a subsidiary of Mighty River Power; the utility has 350,000 electric and gas customers, most located in the north island.

Mighty River Power Chief Executive Doug Heffernan said the new processes, designed in consultation with a number of Auckland community groups and social agencies, build in a greater level of proactive communication and new check points to avoid unnecessary disconnections.

“We made a commitment that we would learn from the Muliaga tragedy and take quick action to improve our credit management systems. This has been our top priority and we are confident that our new procedures will do our part to prevent another similar tragedy occurring in the future,” he said.

“Customers with overdue accounts will benefit from a greater level of communication from Mercury Energy, as well as a number of new safeguards and more flexible systems to ensure where there is medical dependency or genuine financial hardship we have taken every possible step to avoid disconnection.”

New customer identification and assistance improvements include:
•    All customers have been written to informing them that they can register a medical dependency or financial hardship by contacting the Mercury Energy call center.
•    Overdue bills and credit letters have been redesigned to contain additional information on the steps to avoid disconnection.
•    A personal phone call will be made to customers with overdue accounts in the week before scheduled disconnection to establish whether or not a hardship or medical dependency situation exists. No disconnection will take place if genuine need is established.
•    The customer’s account history will also be reviewed and, if warranted, social agencies will be alerted, subject to Privacy Act requirements.
•    New disconnection guidelines have been developed for contractors, with an explicit instruction not to disconnect where any doubt exists in relation to medical dependency or financial hardship.
•    More flexible payment and part payment options will be introduced.

Mr Heffernan said of the average 150 daily disconnections by Mercury Energy contractors, by far the majority were for safety reasons, for example where a property has been vacated and no new account established, and Mercury Energy’s review had confirmed disconnections for electricity bill arrears averaged about 35 per day.

“I think the public initially had the impression we were disconnecting far more people for overdue accounts than is the reality. But the positive development out of our review is that with these new measures we are introducing we feel we will be reducing the number of disconnections for overdue bills.”

Mr Heffernan said Mercury Energy had committed not to resume actual disconnections until it was satisfied the new customer safeguards were working. He added that Mercury Energy would also continue to work with the Electricity Commission and other industry groups on strengthened guidelines to assist vulnerable customers. Mercury would implement any agreed further customer improvements identified by the government review.