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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Customer Service fail: Scottish Power Case Study

[ Short link to this article if you need it: or retweet me]

I've been looking at alternative energy suppliers recently (as everyone should) and so I was looking for the details of supplier's different tariffs. Bearing in mind the number of comparison sites out there who have access to this information, such as uSwitch, MoneySupermarket, FuelSwitch or any number of others that are on the UK Government's web site you'd think it would be easy to find that information on a supplier's own page.

Some of them are better than others. e-On's list was pretty good. A PDF file is available from Southern Electric filtered by your postcode. Scottish Power give a PDF list but you have to filter it to your region yourself. Which is harder for getting the information, but interesting to compare if you're in a cheaper or more expensive area.

Staying with Scottish Power, here is a screen shot of their currently available options list. It looks more like a mortgage selection screen with options for fixed, capped, discounted, and with or without a standing charge (ultimately the standing charge doesn't make a lot of difference unless your use is below the standing amount - if you're not on a standing daily charge your first few units are at a higher cost that covers the standing charge). One issue I had with this, however, was the fact that it mentioned capped rates, but it didn't tell you what they were capped at. I am currently using Scottish Power as an electricity company, and on their web site when I log in I have the option to change to capped/discounted etc., but again the capped numbers weren't listed. Annoyingly, their website lists options to "manage my payments", but only lets you select the date and update the bank details, not the amounts. It does, however, let you view their "forecast" of your payments to explain the amounts. I wouldn't necessarily expect to be able to immediately change it, but it would be good if it was possible to request a review with a desired amount more easily than sending a full support message. So because of all these things, I had an email exchange:

SXA> Hi - how on earth do I find information to make a choice between tariffs? If I go
SXA> online select the option on the right to change, I get generic descriptions like
SXA> "Online Energy - Capped Rate (No Standing Charge)" and a paragraph of waffle about
SXA> the dates, but NOTHING about what the caps are. I need all that information on one
SXA> page when I log in. How do I get that page. If you are unable to provide such a
SXA> page, I'll look at moving away from you as a supplier because at the moment it looks
SXA> like you're making it very hard work to make a decision.

Three days later here was the reply:

SPWR> Thank you for your email.
SPWR> You will be able to see the various packages on offer on the link provided below:
SPWR> The Capped packages are:
SPWR> 1. Capped Price Energy October 2014
SPWR> 2. Unifi Capped Energy January 2014
SPWR> The Fixed packages are:
SPWR> 1. Platinum Fixed Energy October 2013 (v5)
SPWR> 2. Fixed Price Energy January 2015
SPWR> 3. Fixed Saver April 2013
SPWR> 4. Online Fixed Price Energy January 2013
SPWR> Other packages are:
SPWR> 1. Discounted Energy October 2013
SPWR> 2. Online Energy Saver 16
SPWR> Please confirm the service package of your choice and contact us with your current
SPWR> meter readings and we will be happy to assist you.
SPWR> I apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.
SPWR> We look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Now there are a couple of things wrong with that reply. Firstly, they've once again told me about capped rates (which obviously I knew about, hence the original question) but appear to have failed to read or understand the question as there is still no information about the rates involved. The link they provide gives no further information, so that was a waste of time them including it and me reading it. Further discussion required:

It's also worth pointing out here that each message I send results in an automatic confirmation from them that it has been received and logged and they will "We will endeavour to respond to you as soon as possible." Oddly however, ONE MINUTE BEFORE the above resopnse reply I got this:

SPWR> Thank you for sending your email to the ScottishPower Online Energy customer service
SPWR> centre. A copy of what you have sent to us is included at the bottom of this email.
SPWR> We aim to respond to all enquiries within the next 2 working days.
SPWR> Please be aware that this message is generated from an unmanned mailbox. We cannot
SPWR> respond to any mail to this address.
SPWR> Thanks and regards,
SPWR> Online Energy Customer Service Team, ScottishPower

Strange, don't know why that was needed after the original auto-acknowledgement, or why it was sent just before the response. I didn't get one of those for any subsequent communication. Oh well ... onwards:

SXA> Hi,
SXA> You have spectacularly failed to answer the question I asked completely.
SXA> Neither the information in your email, nor the link you provided (from
SXA> what I can see) gives me what I asked for. Telling me "there is a fixed
SXA> rate option" and "There is a capped rate option" is COMPLETELY useless
SXA> unless you tell me what the rates are fixed/capped at, along with the
SXA> standard rate. I want those details, preferable on a single page. Surely
SXA> that isn't asking too much? Are you intentionally hiding this informatio,
SXA> or have I mmissed something here?
SXA> Also, I don't see any information on what the standing charge options are,
SXA> and how the tariffs for those may be different, and they appear to have
SXA> been missed from your reply.

This was send shortly after the previous reply, and didn't receive a response, so I tried again four days later, forwarding that last message and adding:

SXA> Hi,
SXA> I've just logged into my account an the status of this issue appears to
SXA> have been listed as 'closed' on the 18th when I sent you this reply.
SXA> Please reopen it and reply to me.
SXA> As another query, how do I get my direct debit reduced? in my direct debit
SXA> forecast the calculation comes out as being £92 (which is what it's
SXA> currently set at) yet that's based on a £291.09 credit balance, which
SXA> seems like an odd calculation - surely the balance should be targetted as
SXA> close to zero as possible instead of targetting nearly £300 of positive
SXA> balance?

At this point it appeared to have got turned into a complaint as the email subject was changed:

SPWR> Complaint Number: 3493949
SPWR> Thank you for your email.
SPWR> I can confirm that your direct debit has been reduced to £63.00 per month, this
SPWR> will start from 10 November 2011.
SPWR> As advised previously all our new products are on our website, however, there is
SPWR> only two available to you as an Electric only user.
SPWR> 1st is our Capped Rate product which caps your prices until 31 December 2013.
SPWR> 2nd is our Discounted Energy October 2013, this is not capped but is guaranteed
SPWR> to stay 6% lower than Scottishpower standard direct debit package.
SPWR> If you would wish me to change you to any of the above please reply to this email.
SPWR> Kind regards

Again, no information on the capped rate, only how long it lasts for, which appears to have gone back from October 2014 in the initial reply, to December 2013. Great. Also they've listed two options as being available, when their capped rate listed on their web page should also be valid. If I was doing this on the phone I wouldn't have been able to verify what I'd been told, so I'll consider this a success for online asynchronous communication. Let's try again ...

SXA> Hi,
SXA> Thanks for changing the direct debit amount. I seem to end up with more
SXA> question each time I contact you though, so here are the three questions
SXA> I'd like you to respond to:
SXA> First, regarding the automatic calculation, can you confirm WHY my direct
SXA> debit was set at £92 based on a target credit of £291.09? I don't
SXA> understand why you would do that, since it obviously allows you, rather
SXA> than me, to accrue interest on the credit amount.
SXA> Second, for the capped option you STILL haven't told me what it's capped
SXA> at? Is it capped at the rate it is today (i.e. it'll go down if your
SXA> standard prices drop) or some other rate. I don't understand why that's
SXA> not listed anywhere.
SXA> Third, your last message said the capped and discounted rates are
SXA> available to me but your web site lists "Fixed Saver Energy" as an option
SXA> for electricity-only customers, so why is that one not available to me?
SXA> I will hold off on a decision on any change for now (in fact since you've
SXA> changed the DD amount the account appears to be locked). The discounted
SXA> rate is tempting, although the confusion over your tariffs and direct
SXA> debit charging, and the fact that I couldn't change the amount on your web
SXA> site (so how you won the "best online service" uSwitch award is a mystery)
SXA> is making me less inclined to stay with you at the moment.

SPWR> Complaint Number: 3493949
SPWR> Thank you for your email.
SPWR> Looking back on your account your direct debit was £70.00 per month until you were
SPWR> billed in December 2010 for £245.11 arrears, your direct debit was then increased to
SPWR> £92.00 per month to clear these arrears. Now you are showing £45.62 credit your
SPWR> direct debit can be reduced to £63.00 per month.
SPWR> The capped rate until 2013 prices are as follows:
SPWR> Service charge 37.16p per day and 10.89p per unit.
SPWR> Fixed Saver - which does Electric solus I apologise - prices are capped until 31
SPWR> December 2014, prices as follows:
SPWR> Service Charge 32.15 per day and 10.89p per unit.
SPWR> Your prices as present are: 29.02p daily service charge and 10.89p per unit.
SPWR> I trust that the above meets with your satisfaction, if I can offer any further
SPWR> assistance in the future please do not hesitate to contact myself or one of my
SPWR> colleagues at the above email address.

Finally an (almost) straight answer (Still didn't explain why the 'target' balance was so high, only why the direct debit was higher than it needed to be - which was perfectly reasonable. And after the change their direct debit forecast "calculation" has been modified so that it results in a final direct debit figure of £63 - what I requested). Very disappointed that it took so long to get to this stage though, and that the rates aren't listed on their web site to allow me to make a valid comparison (despite presumably being made available to the comparison sites somehow). Now I have to consider whether to use them (their tariffs are pretty good once you figure our what they are, although for me, nPower have a better option, and seem to be active on twitter unlike Scottish Power's account), or switch to a company that's open and honest about their options, know what their special deal periods are (the website now has the capped rate as expiring January 2014, I guess a "month" has rolled over since that exchange) and might have better people on their helpdesk.

I suppose it comes down to one thing: How much is customer service worth? If it was 5%/year extra for a supplier you know had good customer service would you take it? In principle, I possibly would ... the problem is that you can't be sure if the alternatives are really better until you've switched.

(A link to this blog entry has been sent to Scottish Power for their records, and will hopefully allow them to improve their service to others in the future)

Monday, 24 October 2011

Customer Service fail: BT Case Study

[ Short link to this article if you need it: ]

A couple of months ago I got an "important" letter in from BT. It had got to the end of the 12 month contract I'd signed up to and the letter said "To continue, do nothing". That's not really something that should have red "IMPORTANT" letters on the outside. I suppose it's not quite as bad as the letter I got inviting me to "bring my calls back to BT" at one point (my calls had been billed direct from BT for a few years...)

At this point I logged into my account to see what I was paying for and if it was reasonable. It is absolutely horrendous trying to figure out how BT's charging system works. I have a plan (unlimited evening and weekends) that has a 'sticker' price of £16.90. You get a £3 discount if you sign up for a year as I had. Which means I'm paying £13.90/month right?

Wrong. There is also a paper-free discount of £3.75, but that's listed as applying every quarter. So what I was actually paying per month was (£16.90-£3-(£3.75/3)) = £12.65. Which actually didn't seem to bad, but honestly the fact that this "bottom line" figure isn't actually listed anywhere is absurd. What possible reason do BT have for making this so complex - why is there a need to list intermediate figures and then subtract a quarterly paperless discount instead of having it in a simple monthly calculation with £1.25/month paperless discount. Every few years I see letters from BT saying they're going to make things simpler, but they've clearly failed. Completely.

I looked at other options and decided that I would move over to my ISP for line rental, to get more logical bills paying a straightforward £11.90/month. I called up BT, told them I thought their system was too complex and ... they offered me a further discount. You have to wonder if the assistant had a strong sense of irony or something. Bear in mind that I don't really make landline calls - if it wasn't for my broadband FTTC connection I probably wouldn't have the line, so any discount is effectively directly discounting my internet connections. They offered a surprising further £3/month if I signed for a further 12 months. So I'd be paying (£16.90-£3-£3-(£3.75/3))=£9.65. Which is very cheap for line rental. At that point I let my principles down and agreed.

Now a couple of months later I thought it would be prudent to drop my direct debit to BT, which was set to £13.50/month (there is a currently a £17 credit on my account so ideally I needed the DD less than my monthly amount). I logged onto the web site and tried to set it to £10 (should really be less) but the site refused saying it couldn't be set that low. I mentioned this to @BTCare on twitter who suggested I fill in their web form, which I duly did (as an aside, it's interesting to note that BT don't use a client that gives the "in reply to" link on their tweets to dereference what they were responding to - I assume it's to make it harder to view the complaints)

The exchange went like this:

SXA> As mentioned on twitter I tried to drop my Direct Debit to
SXA> £10/month (I have a discounted deal which means that's not unreasonable). My account
SXA> has £17 of credit on it, and I suspect it'll take a few months before that's used
SXA> up, so can you please drop my DD from £13.50 to £10 for the foreseeable future.
SXA> Thanks.

BT> I called you today, sorry I missed you. I did leave a voicemail message.

BT> You can make changes to payments and your direct debit on your online billing
BT> account I would suggest refunding you back the credit on your
BT> account and reducing your monthly amounts to £12 per month this is the lowest amount
BT> the payments can be reduce to. Let me know if you like me to arrange the refund I
BT> can do this for you. I have reduced the payment amount of £12. This will take effect
BT> from the next payment date on 08/11/2011.

BT> If you need anything else just let me know.

SXA> No, I want the payments reduced to £10. Do not just say "£12 is the lowest
SXA> I can set them to" without a sensible explanation. I mentioned this issue
SXA> on twitter because the web site told me they couldn't set it to that level
SXA> and was told @btcare twitter to raise it here. It doesn't look like I've
SXA> got any further.
SXA> Please find a way to reduce it to £10 or I will escalate until I find
SXA> someone who can, otherwise I consider you in violation of the contract I
SXA> signed up to.

BT> I called you today, sorry I missed you. I did leave a voicemail message.

BT> I am sorry I did not include an explanation of my original e-mail. The reason the
BT> payment amount can not be reduced to £10 a month is due to your line rental is
BT> £13.90 per month. Therefore if you only paid £10 you will incur a debt balance for
BT> your next invoice, which in turn will cause the payments to go up more to clear the
BT> debt balance and also cover the next invoice. If you wish I Can discuss this with
BT> you on the telephone to work out the best payment method to suit you. Let me know
BT> and I will give you a call.

SXA> You are incorrect, my line rental had an additional £3 discount applied
SXA> when I renewed a few weeks ago taking it well below £13.90. I'll ask you
SXA> once again since you appear to be accusing me of doing something that
SXA> isn't sensible. If you can't see this on my account then it's probably
SXA> because your billing system is so hideously complex:
SXA> Please reduce the direct debit to £10/month. I do not wish to have to
SXA> request this yet again.
SXA> My office number is 01xxx-xxxxxxx, or my mobile is 07xxx-xxxxxx.

So the only logical conclusion I can reasonably draw from this, as stated at the end of that last email, is that my initial assertion was correct and that BT's billing system is so hideously complex that even they can't figure out what I'm actually being charged.

I would also always prefer to have the contact via twitter or email in a written format rather than via phone calls, so I'm never quite sure why companies insist on doing things via phones, especially the ones that use non-UK call centres (which, I should point out, wasn't the case with BT). Maybe they just don't want to looks silly when their correspondence is pasted into a blog entry :-)

For reference, this is what my monthly price breakdown looks like on the web site, and for the record I genuinely haven't got a clue what the £6.19 credit at the top is for. But as you can see there isn't a lot in this calculation that would lead you to believe there is a £13.90 figure as mentioned in the email exchange (This screenshot excludes the paperfree discount, which is listed on another part of the bill, presumably to make it more obtuse, along with even more calculations)

Fortunately after the above email conversation they got in touch (via phone) and agreed to drop the direct debit to £10 as I'd originally requested, and they are also going to refund the current credit balance (which in all honesty I wasn't too bothered about at the moment). At least I'll have a small amount of credit building up each month if I do have to make the odd non-free phone call. It's just a shame they couldn't have done that in the first place. All customers want is a straight answer to "What's in going to cost me?"

[EDIT: For completeness, @btcare tweeted me an apology for it all after I mentioned this blog]