Saturday, 10 October 2009

Power At The Speed Of Light

Yesterday afternoon I was sifting the internet and reading the referenced article on the future of energy prices. The news was bad - Ofgem are predicting steep rises anywhere up to 60% over the next 7 years.

To my surprise the doorbell rang as I was reading the very article and once I had calmed the dogs down I found a clean cut, nicely suited young man brandishing an identity card as if he was from the FBI. It turned out he was from npower. I suspiciously looked back toward my PC thinking the worst of conspiracy theories, how could he have got here so fast?

'Hi, I'm from npower and this is my identity card,' he said with a pleasant smile. 'And how are you this cold day? Winter is on its way, isn't it?'

I have read that the power of suggestion is remarkable and an involuntary shiver ran down my spine to confirm it. The coincidence, if it was such, was suspicious.

'What are you doing here?' I asked warily.

'To save you money on your energy bills, as I have done for....' he reeled off the names of all my neighbours, even the two people I knew were away in Majorca and Ireland respectively. It made me fear the worst and I envisaged them tied up in their lounges, gagged and unable to call for help having been forced to sign a new power deal. Either that or he was lying about speaking to them.

'Prices are set to rise,' he continued. 'You probably would want to protect yourself against such rises and by signing up with npower you can not only protect yourself from those rises but we guarantee a saving on your current bill. You couldn't refuse an offer like that, could you?'

The last bit was delivered with a smile but it sounded a mixture of mafia-style threat and the suggestion I must be stupid if I refused. I panicked.

'I'm only the janitor,' I blurted out. The chap looked bemused.

'This is this address,' he said pointing to his clipboard. I nodded it was pointless lying, he knew everything - he even had the number of my gas and electric meters down there. 'You are Nigel Dunn, aren't you?' It was an obvious threat - deny it and I would disappear like my hapless neighbours. I caved in, bowing to his superb interrogatory techniques.

'I am,' I said.

'Good, got that sorted,' he smiled again. 'A lot of people think we are trying to sell something and so fib. But I am not selling you anything.'

'What would you call it then?' I asked. It just came out, I don't know why I said it. His face seemed to darken for a second.

'No, people only think we are salespeople,' he smiled, his teeth slightly more clenched. 'But we are energy consultants. We are here to help you save money. There is a difference, you know.'

Clearly the debate was over. 'To qualify for the savings now and to lower your current bills and then protect yourself from future rises, all you need to do is sign here,' he continued, pointing to a line next to my name which was currently blank.

'Don't you want to see my bills first and check you can get be lower?' I asked. 'That's what the last guy wanted.' He laughed.

'Of course, but it's just a formality,' he said. 'We know we are cheaper than your current supplier, Eon.' It was the last throw of the dice of a desperate man on my part. Then I remembered.

'Wait a minute, we are on a 10 year price capped deal,' I said excitedly. 'I have already signed one of these daft contracts and I am already protected against future rises.'

He suddenly recoiled and almost held up his hands as a vampire might do at the sight of a cross. He shrank back into the shadows and said something about that would be OK then, I had already taken precautions. He did not say goodbye, I just caught a glimpse of him scuttling across the courtyard. I closed the door with a smile, for once I had one over on a door to door salesman. I waited but there was no sound of a car engine and when I looked out, he had gone.

The energy scams are a softer sell than they used to be. Having been persuaded by Eon some time ago to put both gas and electricity with them, I signed a ten year price cap deal. Some quarters later I saw a man wandering around the courtyard with a clipboard and identity tag around his neck but he did come near my house. A few days later I got a shock as Eon had claimed to read my meter and after several estimated bills previously they found I now owed them a lot of money - hundreds of pounds which they were going to charge me for.

I noticed that the estimates carried back to beyond when I signed up and there was something strange about the sudden rise in the number. I went outside and checked the meter and the number I saw on the gas meter was far, far lower. I called and they said that they had read the meter and we checked the dates which appeared to be the day I saw the chap wandering the courtyard. It was meant to be the guy who had read the meter. Even though it was now patently obvious he had not read the meter, they then said that legally they were required to read it only once every two years and in between it was my responsibility to check the estimates were right or wrong. I pointed out that the estimates went back to before when I swapped over and they said that was still my responsibility.

Call Centres are a dreadful invention. You ask for an escalation of the problem and you are stonewalled and if you are very lucky you get to speak to the daily supervisor who repeats the same message in more firm tones, being careful to speak exactly when you speak to drown you and then accuse you of talking over them, then ending the call as they did not need to take that kind of attitude or abuse even though you had not said anything. In most cases, the matter ends there as there are no obvious ways of raising this to management. Customer Services may be a number on the bill but you end up in the same place and if you are very lucky, someone who may take a few days to get back to you and then say exactly the same thing again. It happened here and it made me more annoyed. I felt I had been sold a pup as when I told them that I was on a 10 year capped deal and on the bill it said my prices were rising, they outright denied I had signed anything of the sort.

My only recourse was to write in and make my complaint official. I did so and to my horror, for some reason they raised the bill again with some excuse about the readings. At this point the red mist descended. I rang and asked to speak to someone with a title of Director. No chance, such people in many companies today never, ever take calls from customers. It's in their contracts and they are defended by an army of call centre operatives, customer support goons and highly trained receptionists who are automatons who simply say, 'Directors do not take calls.' Not even from their spouses, I suspect.

Years of sales experience kicked in. If there is one thing a salesperson can do, it is to get around gatekeepers as we call them. The first step is to do your research and the internet is so handy for that. Take a look at their website or Companies House and get the Board Directors' names. Then use several permutations of nomenclature of potential email addresses and send a well written email, without anger but with a slight implied threat. The threat I used was 'misselling' and Ofgem were mentioned too.

I got a reply from the CEO's PA within a day. Profuse apologies, they were a special task team who handled complaints to the CEO and my case was being reviewed. I called and spoke to the lady and she wanted to turn it back on me. Then I told her the exact date I had signed the 10 year deal and she suddenly went quiet. The 10 year deal and misselling apparently have some kind of link - it was the magic word. Suddenly all that I had said took on real meaning. Eon should have checked my meter at the start of the contract, that was their responsibility, they should have had a proper reading within 2 years and the chap who came should have done it - of course, she claimed he was an untrustworthy third party worker not Eon. My prices should not have fluctuated and I was not liable to changes in the period I had been with them. In fact, when they read the meter again and sent a new bill - THEY OWED ME MONEY. Further, they even paid me a small sum in compensation - basically hush-money as it was fairly clear they had over-charged badly, not implemented the capping plan, failed to read the meters when they should and there was just a glimmer of a whiff of misselling of the 10 year deal.

I have found such an approach to call centres the only way. I have also had issues with O2 Broadband for business and when I got poor technical service, they moaned it could not be them. Eventually, I did the same and got a reaction form the CEO's PA who personally saw to it the problem was rectified with engineers coming from BT who informed me the practice by broadband suppliers to tell customers to dismantle the sockets to plug the ADSL wire into the ADSL test socket is effectively the exact wrong thing to do and invalidates anything BT does. Thankfully, the guy put it right and my broadband speeds are now acceptable. Again, O2 gave me several free months to compensate when really they did not have to.

My advice, take your complaints to the top. It's the only way you get action. It also serves a purpose and service to these suppliers, as Directors should not be shielded from the real problems in their business and these Directors should take responsibility for poor service.

That's their job.
However, a small amount of empowerment at the Call Centre Operative level would actually remedy most situations without huge cost. That's really worth thinking about for these organisations.

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