Q&A with Rory from Prepay

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re all well.

I’m Rory and I work in Bulb’s prepay team. Following Chris’ great start the other week we’re continuing our fortnightly Community Q&A, with my own slot running from the 6th to the 10th of April.

Bulb have been helping prepay members lower their bills and reduce their CO2 for around 2 years now and things have moved fast. We’re currently focussing on building Smart PAYG and better tools to help our members who have prepay meters.

I’ll be answering questions related to anything prepay at Bulb. This can range from traditional prepayment meters, what we’re building for smart Pay As You Go, to what it’s like working at Bulb.

In fact, if you’re interested, we’ve been working on Smart PAYG so much recently that we’re looking for some of our SMETS 2 members to sign up to our BETA trial coming in the next few weeks.

In the meantime leave any questions below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
For any account specific queries we’ll have Energy Specialists on hand to respond to these.

Have a great day!

Rory

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Hi Rory,

Bulb prepay customer here. I’ve got two questions.

  1. When can most customers of Bulb Prepay expect to have the option of Smart PAYG available to them? Will you stop using traditional methods of topping up in a shop or will online and shop top ups be available?

  2. In light of COVID 19, we can agree that life for people with prepay meters have been made harder with locations for top ups being more limited and the general risk for people to go outside or for those in self-isolation not being able to top up. Has Smart PAYG become an even higher priority for Bulb to implement like many other suppliers?

Cheers!
Richardson

Hey @deesonpl97 ,

Thanks for your questions and welcome to Bulb’s community.

  1. We’re looking to have the option for all of our members to choose how they pay as soon as possible. We want to be signing up members with SMETS2 to the Beta over the next two weeks and assuming that goes well we’ll branch out right afterwards. The reason for this is that it’s a little easier to switch existing meters, rather than install and then switch.

We are going to provide SMETS 2 Pay As You Go members with the option to top up in store or online. Flexibility is key here. Would you agree?

  1. Great question, having a prepayment meter during COVID is difficult due to the risk of not being able to make it to a store to top up. Hayden wrote a great blog about what we are doing to help all of our members last week.

To answer your question specifically;

We’ve been working hard on Smart Pay As You Go for a while now, definitely since before recent events. The whole time we’ve been focussing on building a product that our members will get real value from. COVID hasn’t changed that or our timelines but it’s definitely highlighted to me it’s importance in the future of energy, prepayment specifically.

As a slight side note: We’ve been informed by one of the third parties we work with the less than 5% of their top up locations have closed down as a result of COVID. We’re not resting on this and have lots of other. solutions in place to help at risk members.

I hope this answers all your questions,

Rory

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Hey Rory, What challenges did you come across working with old prepayment meters? Can you let me know what helps you know what the right thing to build is for smart?

Hey @emmaa.th ,

Welcome to community as well! Great to see this engagement on prepay.

I think one of the biggest challenges working with old prepayment meters was the age of the industry and the processes which reflected that. We worked really hard to update them and give our members better service as a result. We automated a lot of processes which had previously been done through excel spreadsheets and out of date systems.

On the smart side, we’ve taken those lessons on board and used outstanding user research, done by the team here at Bulb, to create the product our users want. That’s also one of the reasons we’re launching in BETA, to get as much feedback from our members as possible before rolling out widely.

Hope this answers your questions, let me know of any more that pop up :slight_smile:

Rory

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Hi Rory,

I’ve got two questions:

What’re you doing to help pay as you go customers during coronavirus if they’re self-isolating?

Is it a sign that top up meters should be done away with all together?

1 Like

Hey @madelined,

Thanks for getting in touch, congrats on the first post.

We’re doing a lot to address the impact of Coronavirus on our prepayment members and it’s been one of our biggest focusses recently. As I’m sure you can imagine.

We have been;

  1. Providing discretionary credit for members unable to top up and pointing them towards local help groups who may be able to visit top up locations on their behalf. This will always be the quickest way of topping up on these old meters.

  2. Sending out preloaded keys and cards to members who are self isolating. This allows them to have credit without topping up at a shop, and is a vital service.

  3. Engaging heavily with other suppliers and partners to ensure we all have open and honest discussions to address the ongoing issues as effectively as we can, together.

Your second question is a great one. I believe that Smart PAYG is a big part of how people will use energy in the future. It gives people ultimate control over their energy costs, CO2 and gives the flexibility to top up online.

There will be room for old style prepayment meters for a few years to come, but I think times like now highlight the need for smarter ways to top up.

Hope this answers your question, there is also more information on our blog.

Let me know if not.

Rory

Thanks Rory, that’s really helpful, good to know about the discretionary credit and preloaded keys.

Could you expand on this in comparison to standard credit meters?

Hey @Hooloovoo,

Thanks for commenting, hopefully this answer is helpful.

I see smart Pay As You Go giving people ultimate control over their energy costs for three reasons:

  1. You have the ability to control exactly how much you pay and when you pay it. With credit meters you’ll get a bill at the end of the month. Sometimes this is less than your direct debit, sometimes more dependant on the time of year and your direct debit amounts.

Through the year, this will likely balance out to £0 or we can refund you your credit balances. However with Smart pay as you go, if you use £8.34 a week, then you top up £8.34 that week, never more and never less. (unless you wanted to, of course.)

  1. Furthermore, the restriction on control that comes with traditional prepayment meters, that already allow you to top up when you like, is of course that you need to go to a shop to put money on your meter. With PAYG you can do this on your phone, or you could even set recurring top ups.

  2. Finally, by offering SMETS2 PAYG we can offer customers the ability to switch modes easily, no meter exchange required.

Let me know if you agree,

Rory

I don’t really agree :grinning:

Well, I agree with what you’ve said but not the conclusion. Even with credit meters, like many suppliers now Bulb take payment in advance and it’s generally not allowed for your account to go negative (in banking terms, overdrawn). In the scenario you describe in point 1) where at certain times of year the usage is higher than the direct debit, you’re expected to have built up sufficient credit in your account over summer to cover the higher winter usage. This is essentially prepayment by another name. It’s just the credit is stored with Bulb, rather than directly added to the meter.

I could achieve exactly the flexibility you’ve described by setting my monthly direct debit to the minimum £5 and then manually clicking the “top up” button to add funds as required, either weekly or monthly. This has the significant advantage that if I have cashflow issues at some point and can’t top up, my account will simply go overdrawn, but most importantly I will never get cut off, as I would if I were on a prepayment meter with expired credit.

A “recurring top up” is just a monthly payment and now you may as well be on a credit meter. The lines are so far blurred between these two systems that the difference boils down to whether or not you’re automatically cut off at the point you can’t pay. This disproportionately affects the poor and the vulnerable, and in a society where we consider it unacceptable to automatically cut off a customer on a credit meter without months of warnings, I don’t see why it’s acceptable to automatically cut off someone just because they’re on a different type of meter.

Prepayment meters belong in a bygone age and have no place in modern society, no matter how easy you make it to top up, or how much illusion of “ultimate control” this may or may not provide.

Hey @Hooloovoo,

Thanks for the response.

I don’t think what each of us are saying is too far apart from another.

What I think is clear though, is that the more options our members have the better.

I think the method you described to achieve PAYG like top ups on credit meters is one solution, but altering your payment amount means your Bulb account would never be accurate.

Furthermore if every member did this, Bulb would not be able to take upfront payments as a reflection of our members payments, and their usage it would be much more difficult to offer the tariffs that we do, which are based on the true cost of energy. This is different with Smart PAYG where Bulb and our members understand their buying patterns.

Further, using this method would not achieve the outcome you describe in your first point where your account balances out. At least without significant admin overhead for our members.

To your last point. I 100% agree, we don’t want our members to go off supply. In addition to this we have a responsibility to help our members manage their debt. In building smart PAYG we have the ability to help customers understand their usage, lower their bills never go into debt and where they need some friendly credit they will get it. Rather than hindering those who are struggling to pay, or that go into debt, PAYG is a solution.

Vulnerable customers will always be supported to Bulb and we will proactively monitor their accounts to ensure they get the support they need.

I’d also like to point out that we’re not going into this too quickly. We have done user research and found that a large majority of prepayment customers like the kind of meter they have, due to the control it offers them. We’ve taken time to understand what our members want.

My opinion is that PAYG gives much greater flexibility. Let me know your thoughts, really interested in them.

Best,

Rory

Hi
I am one of those who is affected by Covid-19. We are isolating due to my child being disabled and at serious risk. I can’t get to the shop to top up and am about to run out of gas. My family member who was going to help me has now got the nasty virus, so can not help us anymore. So we are stuck. We are stuck! Can I change from prepayment to direct debit please, so that I can keep us safe and not worry about running out of anything?

You can, yes, but that’s going to be months down the line once this is all settled and getting back to normal. It’s not going to help you right now. Your old non-smart prepayment meter will need to be removed and replaced with a new meter.

In the mean time, have you see the advice here? Bulb should be able to send you a pre-topped-up key in the post. That will take several days of course, so hopefully you haven’t left it get too late before seeking assistance.

Prepayment meters need to be removed forever. Smart prepayment meters are a bandage on what shouldn’t even be an issue in modern society.

For what definition of accurate? The account would be as accurate as it always is based on monthly meter readings. Nothing would change there. If you’re referring to the accuracy of the credit balance, well that’s never accurate it’s always a best guess on what is needed.

Bulb tariffs are not based on the “true cost of energy” as Bulb have demonstrated very clearly over the last 6 months. The only tariff to truly do that is Octopus Agile, where the domestic cost is determined based on a transparent formula converted against published wholesale cost.

Will Bulb be publishing the algorithm you use to convert wholesale cost to domestic cost?

Why not? It would be exactly the same, and the admin overhead would be no more than what existing prepayment customers already have to do to ensure their continuity of supply.

The only way prepayment meters help customers manage their debt is to cut them off. Why is that acceptable?

That’s lack of education combined with Stockholm syndrome. Customers like the type of meter they have because that’s what they’re used to, and lots of people fear change. That doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate to support and encourage them into moving to what would be better for them. Prepayment meters cost people more for their energy use, by definition, and since most people on prepayment meters are poor and often in some way vulnerable, it means we as a society are yet again charging the poor more for being poor. We should be encouraging people to lower their bills by being comfortable with the services that are the most cost efficient, i.e., moving off prepayment meters, and helping them with education in terms of budging their finances.

Perhaps when your smart prepayment services are all up and running, reducing the costs involved in providing the service, you’ll reduce the prepayment tariff to match that of the pay monthly tariff? If there were no difference in costs I’d have significantly less of a problem with prepayment meters in general.

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Hi @rbaird76,

Thanks for getting in touch here. We certainly can offer you a credit meter in the long-term once the virus has lifted and it’s safe to send engineers over again.

In the meantime you could either order a pre-loaded key as Rory mentinons or we can help put you in touch with a local help group.

I’ve sent you an email outlining what we can offer in a bit more detail. Let me know there what you’d like to do.