Actions speak louder than words

Bumph from SSE
Bumph from SSE

I have just received two identical letters from my gas and electricity supplier SSE (or, SSE Energy Supply Ltd and Southern Electric Gas Ltd, to give the separate companies their proper legal names).

The letters begin:

“When it comes to customer service, Southern Electric believe you should be treated as we’d like to be treated ourselves. After all, it’s not rocket science, it’s simply the right thing to do for our valued customers. 

“For us, however, actions speak louder than words. So, to prove that we mean what we say – and to show how seriously we take customer service – we’ve gone above and beyond the energy regulator’s standards with three service initiatives.”

I can’t tell you what the three service initiatives are because I’ve not stopped laughing since reading the introductions!

Over the past 18 months to two years I’ve had no end of trouble with the Southern Electric – for the most part due to them threatening disconnection of supply for non payment of bills that they refused to send to me.

What makes it worse is that if I wanted to take my custom elsewhere I would not have been able to. Southern Electric could have put a block on a switch on the basis that I owed them money. If I’m fed up with Tesco I can shop at Sainsburys, and Tesco would be unable to do a thing about it; but if I want to switch energy supplier, landline telephone, internet provider or mobile phone; then the current supplier can make life difficult.

I eventually managed to get a bill – or eight bills, to be precise – from Southern Electric and paid the outstanding amount. But not without a great deal of time, effort and expense – including having to research the legalities of when and how gas and electricity suppliers can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a warrant of disconnection, and writing to the company’s (companies’) then-chief executive Ian Marchant to point out that any attempt by them to obtain such a warrant would leave their staff member who made the sworn statement guilty of contempt perjury.

But contempt of court is not the only offence that SSE breached in their dealings with me: in my correspondence with Southern Electric I was able to point out clear breaches by them of the Administration of Justice Act 1970, the Companies Act 2006, the Companies (Trading Disclosures) Regulations 2008, the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Data Protection Act 1998, the Electricity Act 1989, the Gas Act 1986, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954, the Theft Act 1968, and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999.

Their initial response (a familiar plea that I’ve heard from many companies’ call centre staff) was to say: “We’re a big company. We wouldn’t do anything unless our lawyers say that we can.”

They must have pretty good lawyers if that comment really does indicate the quality of their advice; and if you take a look at SSE’s recent experience before the courts and regulatory bodies:

In Spring last year, the company unsuccessfully sought to overturn an extremely safe criminal conviction in the case of R v Scottish and Southern Energy Plc [2012] EWCA Crim 539. They were fined £1.25 million in that case

In February 2007, Ofcom found them guilty of switching calls-only customers of their telephony service to a calls-and-line-rental service without the customers’ consent.

In the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Mr Justice Wilkie described their actions in the case of Mr R N Ahunanya v Scottish and Southern Energy PLC (UKEAT/0540/08/CEA) as “frankly extraordinary”, “on any view, outrageous” and a “blatant failure”.

In another case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal, in the case of Scottish and Southern Energy PLC v Mr I Mackay (UKEATS/0075/06) Mr Justice Elias upheld an Employment Tribunal judgment that they had unfairly dismissed an employee because of a disability.

Of course there are two sides to every dispute – that’s why we have two opposing legal teams as part of our legal process; but I do get annoyed when staff assume that because they work for a big company, everything that they do is lawful.

As I say, I finally managed to persuade SSE that they wouldn’t get any money from me – nor would any court require me to pay them any money – until such time as they had sent me the bills. It beggars belief to understand why a company could create such a fuss and confusion, angst and upset over such a matter. They want their money. I want a bill before I send them money. As SSE say, “it’s not rocket science.”

131122-sse-logoOkay, I’ve stopped laughing now, at least long enough to glance at the SSE bumph (or the Southern Electric, Atlantic, Scottish Hydro, Swalec, SSE Energy Supply Ltd, Southern Electric Gas Ltd or SSE Group bumph – all these brand and company names appear on their letterheads). Apparently, if they fall short in any of five service commitments they’ll give me £20 off my next bill.

Wow! It’s very difficult not to be underwhelmed.

In my case, despite months of what can only be described as harasment; and all the additional work, research, time and effort, all I got was repeated apologies and continued failings. In fact, even though I have the bill and paid them off, they are still doing some of the the same things that they have acknowledged as a failure, promised to desist and provided numerous apologies. So, a payment of £20 for future breaches would be a step in the right direction, yes? Well, no.

You see they’re not offering to send anybody £20 (not that £20 would cover a person’s time, yet alone the cost of posting several letters by recorded or special delivery when disputes arise). What they’re promising to do is deduct £20 – “off your next bill”. If you switch to another supplier you get nothing.

Compare this to the rewards of former chief executive Ian Marchant: In his last year with the company he received rewards totaling £2.6 million, including an annual salary of £870,000 (an increase of £30,000 on the previous year, an increase of more than most SSE staff receive in a year, I’d guess); £680,000 into his personal pension plan (an increase of £300,000 on the previous year); and shares valued at £1 million. 

I don’t actually begrudge company bosses receiving large rewards. I don’t take a left-wing or communist view here. But I do object when bosses of state-sanctioned monopolies of essential services receive such large rewards, especially when those monopolies are complaining that they can’t make a profit and have to put the prices of essential services up, and up, and up, and up, and up to the detriment of vulnerable people living in real poverty.

And I object when those bosses are so inept that the company or companies that they run are in such disarray. It shouldn’t take months to get a bill from a company while they continue to threaten you with what would be unlawful enforcement action.

Trust in the energy companies is at an all-time-low – so much so that energy company bosses are in danger of making bankers look like saints!

SSE, or whatever you’re calling yourself this week, I agree with you that actions speak louder than words. And I agree with you that it’s not rocket science to do the right thing. But to do the right thing you need to do more than send glossy letters (twice) to your customers full of words about how good you are. You actually need to be good.

Offering £20 off a customer’s next bill when you’ve wronged them is hardly a sign that you understand what doing the right thing means.

  • Yes, I know I can switch suppliers to somebody else; but at the end of the day they are all as bad as each other. Essential utilities should not be in the hands of private companies. The companies say they struggle to make a profit. But they do, as the rewards for their top executives demonstrate; and in order to generate this profit (deliberate pun intended) they charge a price for essential gas and electricity far in excess of what it actually needs to be.  





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