John Williams opinion on Utility Companies

I like to think I am a fairly placid person and I get on with most people, - whether they get on with me is another matter! However, there is a business sector which I simply loathe – the utility companies. It is the bane of a managing agent’s life to have to deal with utility companies, and, without a shadow of a doubt, the gas and electricity companies are the worst.

We waste so much time (which could be better spent on the properties we manage) having to deal with getting invoices amended to show the correct name, trying to make sense out of ridiculous estimated/actual meter readings, unravelling deemed contracts on out-of-contract rates, checking for hidden charges with no foundation, and so I could go on.

The utility companies now have the gall to demand deposits or insist on payment by direct debit. Our policy is to always refuse but a couple years ago we were forced into a situation where the only way we could obtain a supply for 10 properties was to agree to pay by direct debit. Guess what happened next? Tthey ended up taking the wrong amount of money from the wrong bank accounts and then took forever to sort it out.

We pay suppliers every week but by the time meter readings have been checked, queries raised and invoices processed for payment it could take up to two weeks - depending on when the invoice is received - to settle the account. Then call centres from around the world start calling threatening to cut off supplies unless the bill is paid by credit card immediately. My usual response is “jog on” or words to that effect!

Deregulation, changes of ownership and reorganisations in utility companies mean that something as simple as changing the name on a bill or requesting a new supply may involve two or three different utility departments and three different agents. If these companies want our business they certainly have a strange way of showing it – a new supply could take weeks to sort out and yet when they want something from us, they expect an instant reaction.

You know things must be bad when there are dedicated companies set up who will ‘take away the stress of dealing with utility suppliers’. It’s certainly a tempting prospect, but should be completely unnecessary.

We’re here to help our customers in any way we can. We want to give you the information and advice you need to save energy and save cash too. Fixing your prices couldn’t be simpler. These are just some of the statements to be found on supplier websites. I remain to be convinced – and I’m not the only one.

In March 2011, energy regulator Ofgem announced a clampdown on the customer complaint-handling procedures of three of the UK's major electricity providers, meaning utilities need to show they are committed to increasing customer satisfaction and providing quality services at reasonable cost without compromising levels of service. Then, only at the end of July this year British Gas was fined a massive £2.5m by Ofgem for the way it has mishandled customer complaints.

Ofgem said: “The fine is a warning from Ofgem that all energy companies must take complaint handling seriously and treat their customers fairly.” Their investigation had found that British Gas had failed to re-open complaints when the customer reported an unsatisfactory resolution; failed to provide customers with key details about the service provided by the Energy Ombudsman and failed to put in place adequate processes and practices for dealing with complaints from small businesses.

Perhaps now, particularly with the rising cost of energy, the utility companies will finally wise up and treat consumers in a professional way, focusing on customer care, with more dedicated teams dealing with managing agents and taking the time to understand how we operate.