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Inside Yarra Valley Water’s financial hardship program

With the cost of living on the rise, the water community has a pivotal role to play in ensuring affordable essential water services.

While water utilities are keenly aware of the need to keep water affordable, one Victorian utility is taking financial community care to the next level.

Yarra Valley Water’s WaterCare program offers customers support to help pay their water bills, assisting financially vulnerable community members to access government incentives, concessions and rebates. 

Yarra Valley Water Managing Director Pat McCafferty said a recent customer survey found that about one third of customers with a concession card were not aware they could claim up to 50% off their annual bill, highlighting the importance of increasing awareness of the support options that are available.

“Over the past 12 months we have helped customers claim over $52 million in concession discounts, but many customers don’t know what’s available to them,” she said.

“More than half our concession card customers have held a card for over two years and may be entitled to up to 24 months of retrospective concession discounts.

“Receiving a water bill shouldn’t cause extra stress. We understand that life happens and anyone can experience vulnerability, and find themselves struggling to keep on top of their water bills.

McCafferty said WaterCare is about helping customers through dedicated support and tailored solutions to suit individual needs, with the utility proactively encouraging all eligible customers to register their details with the WaterCare team.

Meeting hardship

Co-designed with the community in 2013, the WaterCare program was initially established as part of Yarra Valley Water’s response to the need for financial hardship and vulnerable customer support.

“WaterCare was in response to high levels of financial vulnerability in the community at the time. Research from the Smart Water Fund identified that a significant number of people had struggled to pay their utility bill at some time in the previous year,” McCafferty said.

“Access to safe, reliable and affordable water and sanitation are basic human rights. We know that price is critical for customers and maintaining affordable bills is a key focus for us.”

While the program has been around for almost a decade, the utility has launched a WaterCare communications campaign with the aim of tackling barriers customers face when it comes to accessing financial support. 

This includes addressing low awareness of financial support options and the potential stigma some people feel about asking for help by normalising conversations about options for bill support.

The campaign will run in five languages other than English, and include additional information to support those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“As well as raising awareness of what support is available when people need it, we also want to normalise the use of services like Watercare and ensure people feel comfortable to reach out and start a conversation,” McCafferty said.

“Given the impacts of the pandemic over the past two years, it’s more important than ever that we have this conversation with our customers.”

Kindness pays

Despite the clear benefits the program provides to the community, McCafferty said WaterCare — and genuine customer support in general — is also good for business.

“We’re a people-focused business and supporting those in need is a strong part of our commitment to care for customers,” he said.

“It’s really important to us that our customers know there is support available. And we know this is what our customers want too — they told us so in the Citizens’ Jury we set up as part of our last Price Submission process.

“Good customer care not only has a measurable impact on our customers’ lives, it’s also brought a positive financial benefit to our business.

“Since WaterCare’s establishment, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of customers who have been able to transition out of the program, keep on track, and return to regular payment arrangements.”

McCafferty said WaterCare has been designed to meet customers’ individual challenges and needs, offering a range of different avenues for help with paying bills. 

“It’s designed to provide a helping hand when it’s needed most, and find a way forward for anyone looking to get their bills back on track,” he said.

“It’s a program of support services that can be tailored to suit the needs of any person, including flexible payment terms, payment plans or support to help reduce their bills, including through applying for government grants like the Utility Relief Grants Scheme.”

“For customers experiencing ongoing financial difficulties or family violence, our specialist WaterCare team steps in to provide case managed support, including connecting them into financial counsellors for extra support.”

Putting customers first

While the WaterCare program is a key initiative within Yarra Valley Water’s approach to community assistance, McCafferty said it is backed by the utility’s ongoing engagement with the community and connecting in person with customers to help them understand their bills.

“We regularly take part in community events such as Bring Your Bill events where staff are available to meet customers to make sure they’re aware of our services and support available, and provide face-to-face assistance,” he said.

“We also attend community meetings to talk about our services and programs and provide information about water efficiency and how to manage bills. We work with community partners to reach different groups, including multicultural communities.”

McCafferty said the utility is also a proud founding member of the Thriving Communities Partnership (TCP) — a not-for-profit organisation working across sectors to adapt organisational policies and practices to support those experiencing vulnerability.

“TCP’s goal is to ensure every Australian has fair access to the modern essential services they need to thrive,” he said.

“We’re currently involved in TCP’s pilot project, the One Stop One Story Hub. This is a world-first digital platform that allows frontline workers in corporate and community organisations to help connect and refer customers to a range of supports through a single access point.

“This means people experiencing vulnerability can more easily connect to the extensive support they’re eligible for across a range of essential services without having to individually contact multiple organisations and repeat their story.”