Ten every day – that’s how many confused tourists one newsagent owner estimated wandered into his shop each day in 2012 on Abbey Road, West Ham.

They were confused because they were looking for the zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles’ namesake album. Unfortunately for them, the Abbey Road they were looking for was some 14km away in leafy St. John’s Wood.  The mistake is so common that TFL has even put up a sign gently correcting them on their error.

Because address mix-ups are easy, and they are common. No one knows this better than utilities, who must contend with misspellings, varying address formats, vanity addresses and a constant stream of new developments. In fact, over the course of one or two months, millions of new address records are created across Great Britain.

No wonder things go wrong – but for utilities the stakes are higher than paying an extra tube fare. Mistakes can lead to fines, reputational damage, uncollected revenue and time and resources spent rectifying them.

Here come the bills – the hidden risks of address mismanagement

If it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of address management, it’s even easier to underappreciate quite how much risk comes with getting it wrong.

These risks range from the simple to the complex. On the one hand, if bills are sent to the wrong address, there is the straightforward (yet no less unpalatable) risk of losing out on that revenue – customers can’t pay bills they don’t receive.

On the other hand, mistakes can compound into something quite egregious. Take the example of one Glasgow woman who received a shock demand for £4,000 in unpaid bills. It was a shock because, as far as she was concerned, she had been diligently topping up her pre-payment meter for years; the problem was that the meter had been incorrectly registered to a different address and so the power consumed at her address had been unpaid for. She’d been paying someone else’s bill. Or take the example of two bailiffs breaking into the wrong home entirely in pursuit of someone else’s unpaid balance.

In instances such as these, the utility opens itself up, not just to the direct costs of rectifying the situation at hand, but to fines and penalties and significant reputational damage. It is hard to attach specific numbers to these costs, but they are very real nonetheless.

It’s all too much – the growing burden

It would be one thing if this were a static problem for utilities to deal with, but that’s not the case. It is a growing one. Context is one reason: the current wholesale cost crisis makes both reputational and financial risks loom larger – supplier margins are razor thin if not obliterated altogether

That same crisis has also accelerated an existing trend for small supplier collapses in the market. This creates an extra address management burden for the inheritors of those customers as it creates large, bulk switching events where large imports of address data must be cleansed and incorporated into systems which may have different formats and standards.

And quite soon suppliers will also have next-day switching to contend with. These rules have been on the horizon a while, but look to finally be landing in the foreground soon, adding an extra layer of time pressure to stretched utilities.

So much for the short-term. What about the long-term? Well, the forecast is for more complexity as utility business models potentially evolve and become more complex. Today, the customer proposition is simple: electricity and/or gas sent to the property and measured by one or two meters. In future, utilities may add electric vehicle chargers, batteries, heat pumps, solar panels all with potential for participation in grid services – at that point there become far more customer information points to keep reconciled to one consistent address.

With a little help from my friends – partnering for…

Address management is an example of a problem that is best solved by collaboration across the industry, rather than competition. In fact, the problem stems from each and every utility building and maintaining its own databases with varying degrees of rigour and success.

Instead, utilities should seek to connect to a single partner that can provide access to a clean, accurate and continuously updated database of British addresses, formatted and maintained to BS7666. As the address technology partner to the Central Switching Service, Idox, via its Aligned Assets suite, is able to help utilities with initial database cleansing and reconciliation against Ordnance Survey’s AddressBase Premium, allocating Unique Property Reference Numbers to the source data. Once cleansed and in the British Standard BS7666 format, accuracy can be maintained in the central store, which is set up to import regular updates, and configured to match the relevant meters to their locations. This way, utilities can ensure they are ready for next-day switching and whatever else the future may bring, and be protected against avoidable errors that can cause real harm at a delicate time for the sector.

And, if they need to send a bill to Abbey Road, they’ll know whether it’s headed to St John’s Wood or West Ham.

By Dinesh Thanigasalam, Head of Sales for address data solutions, Idox.