Energy suppliers should provide a consistent message on the third-party support available so that vulnerable customers feel comfortable taking up the offer for referral according to a Citizens Advice report. It also said that customers should not be penalised for refusing referrals.

“Some consumers may need independent advice or help with a matter that their energy supplier can’t deal with,” the report said. “These problems can impact on the consumer’s ability to manage or pay their energy bills, as well as to engage effectively with their supplier.”

“Third parties, such as advice agencies and specialist charities, can help to explore the root of the problem and find sustainable solutions, taking into account the consumer’s whole situation,” it added. “Suppliers therefore need to signpost or refer vulnerable consumers to third parties where appropriate. This should complement the help and support that is provided in-house.”

Citizens Advice said suppliers should work out exactly what support they can provide themselves and what support would be better provided by a third party. They should build strong two-way relationships with a range of referral partners, but consider how different partners relate to each other to avoid duplication.

Suppliers who are anxious about offering help in case it provokes a negatives reaction should “normalise” third party services by offering them to all their customers: “By delivering a consistent message in the right way, consumers are more likely to take up offers of help when they need and want it.”

Third party services should be promoted by all customer-facing staff, not just certain departments or teams, and staff should be given training to help them make the best referrals and deal with “emotionally challenging situations”.

Vulnerable customers should never be pressured into accepting a referral. “Some consumers may simply not be in a position to accept help and should not be penalised if this is the case,” the report added. “Suppliers will need to explore alternative – perhaps temporary – solutions such as putting the customer’s account on hold.”