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The big six: Is your call really important to them?

By Energy Company Numbers on June 4, 2016 in Help and advice
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We’ve all been there. Trying to remember which number will get us to a human being in an ever expanding call tree of hell. Being reassured at 30 second intervals that our call is very important, but watching the clock ticking by. Finally speaking to a real live person, only to get told we’ve come through to the wrong department they’ll have to transfer us. Then the gut wrenching click as they cut the line dead.

Telephone customer service has always been the bane of the British existence. From incomprehensible overseas operators to call queues designed to drive you to distraction, there’s no doubt some of the UK’s brands have a way to go before they can really call it ‘customer’ service. And the worst offenders? Without a doubt, our energy companies.

Whether it’s the captive audience that they seem to lord over, or the simple fact that they don’t have the resources to cope with their millions of customers effectively, the ‘big six’ energy suppliers have, for some time now, led the pack in the worst of customer service. Out of all the brands and businesses we deal with, these are the six companies we love to hate the most.

How long are you waiting?

Because telephone has always been the traditional method for communication with our energy suppliers, the majority of us feel more comfortable continuing to get in touch with them in this way. But it’s certainly no walk in the park, as a report by UK consumer watchdog Which? highlighted recently.

They performed a mystery shopping exercise, to see how long calls take to be answered by a variety of energy suppliers, both on their sales lines and their customer service numbers. Their findings were not entirely surprising, at least not to anyone who has waited in a call queue before.

  • On, SSE and Scottish Power all kept customers waiting for over six minutes to speak to a real person.
  • British Gas and EDF were around three to four minutes each
  • npower has improved greatly over its whopping 47 minute wait in 2014, now answering the call within around two minutes.

The very worst offender on this score was Scottish Power, who had an average wait time of a massive 30 minutes for people calling their customer service line. Interestingly, they managed to answer their sales line within 49 seconds, showing just where their priorities lie. SSE and EDF also answered sales lines much faster than existing customers, with a wait of around three minutes longer for existing customers with both.

Incidentally, smaller independent companies fared much better. EBICO, Good Energy and the Cooperative all managed to answer calls to both sales lines and customer service lines within the two minute target as set by Which?. The worst offender from the smaller companies was first:utility, who kept existing customers waiting almost 19 minutes.

How do the big six stack up against each other?

In another interesting survey by Which?, they ranked 100 popular UK brands in terms of customer service. Of the 100 brands, all the big six energy suppliers ended up at the bottom, with Scottish Power taking the last place with a customer service score of 59 per cent. Npower was just behind in second to last, with British Gas and EDF taking joint 73rd. SSE did the best out of the big six, snagging 51st place. None of them were in the top 50.

There’s no doubt that our fuel suppliers seem to have figured out the winning formula for really annoying their customers, but which is the worst of the bunch? Here’s our countdown of the best of the worst so you can see how they perform.

  1. Scottish Power

By far and away the worst customer service of them all comes from Scottish Power. If you’re a customer of theirs, be prepared to wait 30 minutes or more when you call. They have more complaints than any other supplier, with almost 1,000 complaints per 100,000 customers last quarter.  They get the lowest customer satisfaction scores of the big six and are one of the worst UK brands for customer service.

A user on TrustPilot said:

“Without doubt the worst utility Company I have dealt with for customer service, can never resolve issues, takes ages to speak to a person (today was 40 mins) but ultimately total waste of my time”

  1. npower

In second place, it’s npower. Collecting a massive 400 complaints per 100,000 customers in the last quarter, there’s a lot of unhappy customers with this supplier. Although they’ve improved their call times this year, last year people were waiting up to an hour to get through. They came second last in the customer service survey, and came 18th out of 19 energy suppliers as ranked by members of the public in September 2015.

A TrustPilot review about them said:

“Trying to deal with customer support is a joke. No one knows what’s going on, that is if you can get through.”

  1. EDF

EDF certainly seem to be making an effort to improve, but past performance secures them the third place in our worst offender’s countdown. Their failure to deal with complaints effectively in 2011 and 2012 cost them £3m in fines. They get around 100 complaints per 100,000 customers, which is an improvement, but still more needs to be done before consumer confidence is restored.

A TrustPilot reviewer said:

“I would have liked to speak to someone… but got fed up holding on the line for so long.”

  1. EOn

Although E.ON also manage to maintain fewer than 100 complaints per 100,000 customers, they do like to keep their customers waiting. They had the second worst call handling time of all the big six, keeping customers waiting on average 11 minutes for a response.

A reviewer on TrustPilot said

“…whenever I call a robot tells me I’ll be quickly put through when in reality every time it’s around 20min. The employees never know anything, keep redirecting me through lines.”

  1. British Gas

British Gas also gets fewer than 100 complaints per 100,000 customers, but holds the unenviable title of joint 73rd out of 100 in the Which? customer service survey. They were rated 15th out of 18 by consumers in the utilities league table. As the UK’s biggest utility supplier by a long way who has been in the industry much longer than their rivals, we should definitely expect more from this major company.

A TrustPilot reviewer said:

“In October of 2015 I had two conversations with them which both lasted over 3 hours and spoke to 12 different people.”

  1. SSE

All round, SSE Is the best of the worst. Out of the big six energy suppliers, SSE gets the least complaints, only 47 per 100,000 customers. They ranked highest in the Which? customer service survey, coming in a 51st, and although their existing customers might have to wait up to 6 minutes to speak to them, they seem to like them as they were voted 12th out of the 18 energy companies reviewed. None of the other big six were voted higher.

Whichever supplier you’re with right now, this is no guarantee that you’re going to get a bad (or good) service from them. Make sure you understand when your contract is up, and take the opportunity to shop around for better deals and service then.

What can you do to make your experience better?

Dealing with busy energy suppliers is never going to be fun, but there are some things you can do to make the experience a little less painful. Here are some tips:

  • Try to use a more modern method of contact. Remember, they are dealing with an ageing UK population, many of whom will not be as tech savvy as you. See if there’s a web chat facility, an email address or an app you can use to get in touch with them.
  • Watch out for the charges. With lots of new phone numbers around, it can be confusing to know which ones are chargeable and which ones are free. As a guide, it really is still just the 0800 numbers which won’t cost you anything. Watch out for 084, 087 and 03 numbers that don’t display their costs, as these can cost up to 57p per minute. Never call a number that starts at 09, as these are premium and can cost up to £4.04 per minute.
  • Demand money back for the call. If you’re kept waiting a long time to get through, ask them to pay the cost of the phone bill for you. Most customer service representatives will have access to a small amount of compensation, which they can add to your bill by way of an apology for keeping you waiting.
  • Make a complaint. If you can’t reach a resolution to the problem immediately, send in a written complaint. This could spur action from your supplier in your favour, or will at least be counted on the complaints tally so that other consumers know to stay away.
  • Use social media. Make the most of Facebook, Twitter and review sites like TrustPilot to share how your experience has been. Consumers can only vote with their feet if they are well informed about the situation.

Not all energy suppliers are the same, and in fact it has been shown time and time again that the smaller UK suppliers win hands down when it comes to customer service. Consider the reason you’ve chosen to be with one of the big six, and ask yourself if they really do ‘value your call’.

About the Author

Energy Company NumbersView all posts by Energy Company Numbers
Energy Company Numbers is a telephone number directory service dedicated to helping UK consumers keep in touch with their energy suppliers.

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