Yarra Valley Water (YVW) recognises that some customers may from time to time experience financial difficulty which will vary in its extent and duration depending on individual circumstances.
This policy ensures that all customers, regardless of their circumstances will face no judgement, and will be treated with understanding, dignity and respect with a focus on customers who may be vulnerable to financial difficulties. It is a living document that will continue to evolve and be responsive to our customer needs. We are committed to continual improvement through our learning, working with partners and experts in the field of customers facing financial vulnerability.
Our Hardship policy and associated programs are based on a focus of shared responsibility and delivered in a model that supports self-determination. We believe that WaterCare Support customers, given the opportunity actively work to manage their debt, and with the appropriate support are able to better gain control of their bills. We work with our customers to ensure they feel listened to and understood, with payment arrangements established that are realistic and affordable based on their individual financial situation. We have developed a holistic approach when working with customers in financial difficulty, who are provided with information on internal support programs as well as referrals to external agencies, where appropriate.
We are committed to assisting all customers who are experiencing any degree of financial hardship. We have a focus on early identification and proactive intervention where we can direct customers to the appropriate support pathways earlier in the vulnerability cycle. A customer who requires additional assistance through our WaterCare Support Team, is defined as someone who has the intention but not the capacity to pay their account, either through lack of financial resources, or the ability to meet specific timelines. This identification can be through a number of channels, such as directly through Yarra Valley Water staff or partners, referral through a community agencies or self-identification. While customers are engaged with our WaterCare Support programs they will not be guided through our normal debt collection process.
Our experience is that financial vulnerability is complex and varied, with different requirements needing a range of options for assistance available, dependent on the time required to financially stabilise. Generally speaking, long term impacts are those with low or fixed incomes, who may require ongoing assistance and can contribute to a low level of payment (e.g. high private rental, on a disability or aged pension). Short term impacts are associated with customers who have experienced a change in circumstances such as ill health, unemployment, a death in the family, a loss arising from an accident, or some other temporary financial difficulty. There are also many other factors that can impact on someone’s capacity to manage their bills and debts, such as mental health, low literacy or instances of family violence.
There is no formal assessment criteria used to determine customers eligibility. All customer are assessed on a case by case basis and are based on a meaningful two-way conversation. Some of the indicators that may highlight a customer’s need for additional assistance are listed below:
- a history of frequent requests for payment extensions or payment arrangements that have not been met
- unable to afford the costs of current usage and debt, even if smoothed over a 12-month period
- a payment history that indicates difficulty paying their account in the past,
- has previously applied for a Utility Relief Grant (irrespective of whether or not the application was successful),
- eligibility for Government funded concessions (e.g. Health Care Card, Centrelink benefit),
- sudden change of circumstances that adversely affects their financial capacity to pay,
- through referral from a financial counselling agency or community organisation,
- identify themselves as having affordability issues,
- any instance where a customer or their advocate identifies as being affected by family violence they are immediately referred into the customer support team
- asylum seekers or refugees who have limited access to financial stability
- people experiencing health and mental health issues
- having a low level of income, that is unlikely to change; and
- are currently unemployed.
Rights of WaterCare Support Customers
Each customer has the right to:
- be treated sensitively and have their circumstances kept confidential,
- receive information about alternative, flexible payment arrangements, Government concessions and programs and YVW’s Hardship Policy,
- either nominate themselves or have their financial counselling representative nominate a payment arrangement amount that is affordable, regardless if it is sufficient to cover the current usage and outstanding arrears,
- redirect the account to another person for payment provided that person agrees in writing,
- renegotiate the amount of their arrangement if there is a change in their personal circumstances,
- choose from various payment methods in accordance with their circumstances and financial ability,
- receive written confirmation of the agreed alternative payment arrangement
- be referred to an accredited financial counsellor in a timely manner,
- receive a language interpreter service if required,
- have no restriction of supply, legal action and additional debt recovery costs, while actively engaging with the WaterCare Support programs
- access a range of YVW support programs to meet their individual needs, access to the company’s Arrange and Save incentive scheme, if the payment amount that they can reasonably afford is not adequate to cover both arrears and future estimated water accounts.
- If the WaterCare Support customer meets their payments consistently, on time and in full, they may receive bonus credits in accordance with approved business rules. If the WaterCare Support customer continues to meet their payments over an extended period of time, they may receive a write off of their long-term debt in accordance with approved business rules.
- be offered information about YVW’s dispute resolution policy and their right to lodge a complaint with Energy & Water Ombudsman of Victoria (EWOV).
- a ‘1800’ telephone number is available, ensuring customers do not incur additional costs when contacting Yarra Valley Water
The Hardship Policy is based on some of the following key principles.
1. Information Provision: Transparency and Accessibility
We will work with the customer and/or their advocate with clear communication and make available our Hardship policy. The policy is also available on request and via the YVW website in a number of languages. To ensure customers are aware of the availability of our assistance programs their ability to contact YVW to discuss alternative payment arrangements is included on all accounts and follow up notices.
YVW is committed to whole of business training where all YVW’s customer facing points, including new inductees and external contractors (e.g. debt collection agency) are trained in the Hardship Policy, principles and programs. We have established a review process that informs all changes to the policy and programs to relevant staff and contractors.
YVW is part of the community and being connected to the community through understanding our customers and their needs is vital. This enables our support programs to be meaningful, successful and relevant. The Hardship policy and programs that underpin the WaterCare Support Team, are communicated extensively to all agencies and organisations that make up the fabric of support for consumers experiencing vulnerabilities.
2. Operating Protocols: Respect and Engagement
The operating protocols that are established under the Hardship policy define how all customer contact staff, in particular the WaterCare Support Team, interact with customers to provide targeted assistance in a respectful manner.
It is recognised that WaterCare Support customers may have a range of pressures and at times this may limit their ability to engage in open dialogue regarding their personal circumstances. We approach these discussions recognising it requiring sensitivity and compassion on our part.
We endeavour to identify customers who may require additional support early in the collection process and create an environment where customers are more comfortable to indicate their needs to us. We understand that proactive and empathetic communication is required when dealing with customers in financial difficulty. As such we provide an environment that encourages customers to be open, and we are committed to listening, without judgement to achieve an outcome that meets both the business and customer’s needs.
Our strategy of support will require at times referral across the business, in which case a respectful and appropriate referral process is maintained.
To ensure that customers are managed in an appropriate manner, the WaterCare Support Team has the following key attributes:
- having the capability and skills to provide the required support and solutions,
- are appropriately resourced and empowered to manage the situation and negotiate appropriate outcomes,
- an understanding that some complex situations requires specialist support, in which case they refer the customer to our specialist partners which includes independent financial counselling; and
- are provided with appropriate financial authority levels to effectively manage the customer’s account including suspension of payments, reduced payment arrangements, credits and write offs in accordance with the delegation of authority levels in the Companies Who Can Authorise Register.
All key stakeholders, are provided contact details for the WaterCare Support Team, to facilitate ease of contact, minimise customer concerns and to assist with speedy resolution.
To protect customer’s rights, we have in place appropriate escalation procedures to deal with customer complaints regarding this policy.
To ensure that we maintain a strong management focus in supporting customers in financial difficulty, a YVW Divisional Manager is allocated responsibility for the strategic direction, operation and management of the Company’s Hardship Policy and programs.
3. Family Violence Protocol
Any instance where a customer is identified as being affected by family violence, the customers will be referred into the WaterCare Support Team to be case managed and their supply will not be restricted, no legal action or additional debt recovery costs, while engaging with the WaterCare Support programs. The WaterCare Support Case Manager undertakes ongoing training that includes training focused specifically on family violence. This is due to the complexity and sensitive nature of the customer’s circumstances and the possible increase risk to their safety. Yarra Valley Water has an internal process to identify these customers and ensure their details are managed with the highest degree of privacy and sensitivity. All staff in the Customer Contact Centre, Customer Debt Management and the WaterCare Support Team, are trained in identifiers and indicators of family violence.
4. Extensive and Ongoing Staff Training
All customer contact staff are trained in the Hardship policy and programs and are able to sensitively engage with customers. A comprehensive training program is delivered to all customer contact staff as part of the induction program, which is supplemented by regular refresher sessions. The training program is reviewed regularly and updated as required. To ensure that training remains current, relevant and appropriate, advice is sought from our financial counselling industry partner on the content and delivery of our training programs.
The training program provided is structured and designed to meet the specific needs of the business area covering some or all of the following items:
- Hardship Policy and programs,
- triggers of financial difficulty,
- family violence awareness,
- identification of customers experiencing financial difficulty,
- how to talk to customers experiencing financial difficulty in terms of language and tone,
- when to refer customers to the WaterCare Support Team,
- literacy and access issues experienced by some customers,
- Aboriginal cultural awareness
- Government programs including concessions, water efficiency programs, relief grants and capital improvement programs; and
- Cultural diversity awareness; and
- legal requirements and responsibilities (e.g ESC Customer Service Code).
To ensure the WaterCare Support Team are updated on community trends and issues we workshop case studies with community based external experts, undertake site visits and receive specialist training from external bodies. Our financial counselling partner also provides assistance in the development of strategies and training to ensure we appropriately support Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) customers and engage with CALD communities through involvement of bi-lingual financial counsellors. We also have relationships with partner organisations to gain greater understanding around the issues associated to vulnerable members of our community including our Aboriginal customers, to better understand how to engage with and support all customers.
Training programs and procedure manuals are provided to external partners including debt collection agencies and our plumbing contractor to ensure they communicate with and deliver a level of service to our WaterCare Support customers in accordance with our requirements. These requirements are commercially based and documented in the terms and conditions of the contract.
To ensure we measure the effectiveness of our programs, key performance measures for the WaterCare Support Team which reflect the type and nature of the work undertaken are in place and monitored (e.g. compliance to payment arrangements).
5. Water Efficiency Focus
We understand the importance of assisting customers in financial difficulty to manage their water consumption, as one method to help gain control of their bill. When assessing the customer’s situation, the WaterCare Support Team reviews the need for water efficiency advice and the customer’s eligibility for any existing water conservation and retrofit programs.
As part of the delivery of any water conservation and retrofit program we engage with key stakeholders on the outcomes of the program, our processes, communication and information provided to customers, to ensure we maximise the effectiveness of our water efficiency programs.
If a WaterCare Support customer requires additional plumbing work to be undertaken that is outside of the approval limits of the applicable Government program, we engage with the customer on options to address the customer’s situation.
6. Continual Improvement
The Hardship policy and associated programs are formally reviewed annually in consultation with our key partners to ensure they remain appropriate and adequately meet our customer needs. However, as a document which is flexible to community needs and the external social environment, improvements are ongoing.
We will continue to actively participate in forums with key partners and stakeholders including advocate bodies, financial counselling agencies, ESC, DHHS, EWOV and other businesses to improve our understanding of the complex issues confronting customers and share our experience and learning’s with others.
YVW is part of the customer safety net, recognising that customers may have more than one issue and need a variety of support and information provided.
Feedback from customers, partners, stakeholders, community organisations along with other local, interstate and overseas developments by other service providers are reviewed to improve the services provided to WaterCare Support customers.
We will continue to work closely with our community agencies and financial counselling partners to develop appropriate, customer focused but commercial and innovative ways to assist WaterCare Support customers to reduce debt levels and effectively transition them back to mainstream billing and payment processes.