Are you being served?
5 February 2008
It is impossible to survive in the modern world without utilities such as water, fuel or telecommunications. That’s why utility companies need to be responsive to customers, allowing them to get in touch quickly and easily to resolve queries or complaints.
Call centres are the main way in which people interact with utilities companies. Over three years ago Citizens Advice found that utility companies’ contact centres often performed poorly. Despite some improvements in the levels of customer satisfaction since then, a recent MORI survey shows that they continue to perform more poorly than contact centres in other sectors.
People are often forced to spend long periods of time and incur large costs hanging on the telephone to their utility company. Even if they get through to a human being they may not be able to resolve their problem in one call. These problems also affect CAB advisers and reduce the number of clients which they are able to help. We estimate that if calls made by CAB advisers to utility companies lasted no longer than 10 minutes then bureaux in England and Wales could help up to an extra 55,000 clients annually.
Currently there is little information for consumers about levels of customer service which means that there are few incentives for suppliers to improve their performance. We believe people need reliable, comprehensive, accessible and regularly updated information about comparative levels of service from utilities’ contact centres. Our online survey found that almost all people would make use of this when choosing a utility company.
We also make a number of recommendations about how utility companies should improve the performance of their contact centres so that all their customers get a better service.
The report context
Utilities are often deemed to be essential services. In the 21st century, life without heat, light, water, telephone and - for some people - internet, is unthinkable. As such, the customer base for utilities is huge, with:
- 21.5 million domestic gas customers and 26 million domestic electricity customers in Great Britain;1
- 23.4 million water customers and 22.3 million sewerage customers in England and Wales;2 and
- 33.6 million UK fixed line telephone customers and 69.7 million active mobile phone connections.3
- 15.2 million UK households have internet access.4
Since people are generally unable to opt out of some of these services, it is imperative that utility companies are responsive to customer need and can deal efficiently with customer contacts and requests. This generally equates to getting the contact centre experience right. Whereas other industries, such as banking, still retain relatively large networks of branches on the high street, which enable customers to raise questions or make complaints face-to-face, most utility companies no longer possess such outlets.
In September 2004 Citizens Advice published a report on the effectiveness of contact centres. Hanging on the telephone examined CAB clients’ experience of using contact centres to resolve their problems across a wide range of government and private sector services in the UK and concluded that contact centres have not proved to be accessible to all.5 Citizens Advice has maintained an active interest in this area, seeking to highlight areas where Citizens Advice Bureaux have experienced particular difficulties in contacting government agencies or particular industries and where improvements are necessary.6
This report focuses exclusively on problems experienced contacting utility companies, including gas, electricity, water and telecommunications suppliers. It was prompted by the large amount of evidence reported by bureaux during 2006-7 about the poor performance of utility companies’ contact centres in dealing with telephone calls from both CAB clients and advisers. More than three years on from the publication of Hanging on the telephone and five years on from the publication of The fuel picture (which highlighted difficulties communicating with fuel suppliers)7 it seemed that improvements had not been made, and in some instances customer service had actually deteriorated.
The need for utility companies – and, more specifically, fuel companies - to deal with customer contacts efficiently is also set to get even more pressing. The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 will not only abolish energywatch, the independent gas and electricity watchdog, and establish a new consumer advocacy body for the UK, but will also bring about changes to the way consumer complaints are handled more generally, placing an increased focus on companies’ internal processes for handling complaints.8 Ofgem will also have a statutory duty to set complaint handling standards for fuel suppliers and where complaints are not handled satisfactorily customers will be able to refer their complaint to a redress scheme. As part of these arrangements, Consumer Direct will assume responsibility for handling enquiries from consumers about problems they are experiencing with their gas or electricity suppliers (in place of the existing energywatch services). It will therefore be imperative that energy suppliers make substantial improvements in dealing effectively with customer complaints at the initial point of contact.
At present Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales report large numbers of cases involving difficulties for both clients and advisers in making contact with utilities suppliers and in getting problems resolved. This evidence forms the basis for this report. While the universality of utilities means that almost everyone has their own experience of telephoning a fuel, water or telecoms company, Citizens Advice Bureaux have extensive and longstanding experience of calling a wide range of utility companies, meaning that we are able to make comparisons between industries, between companies and over time.
Our evidence reported by bureaux is complemented by three further pieces of research:
- a survey conducted by MORI in December 2007 on behalf of Citizens Advice which asked a representative sample of 2,034 adults over 15 years of age in Great Britain about their most recent experiences calling a variety of organisations, including utility companies.
- a survey conducted on Citizens Advice’s Adviceguide website which asked members of the public to detail their most recent experience calling utility companies. The survey ran during the months of September and October 2007 and was completed by 691 respondents. In addition, 100 CAB clients completed the survey at their local CAB.
- a monitoring exercise undertaken by 77 Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales (equivalent to a 20 per cent representative sample of bureaux in England and Wales) who recorded details of all calls made to utility companies during a two week period in September 2007.
- Domestic Retail Market Report – June 2007, Ofgem
- The Communications Market 2007, Ofcom
- Internet Access 2007 - Households and Individuals, National Statistics, 28 August 2007
- Hanging on the telephone - CAB evidence on the effectiveness of call centres, Citizens Advice, September 2004
- Not getting through – CAB evidence on the new system for claiming benefits from Jobcentre Plus, July 2007
- The Fuel Picture - CAB clients’ experience of dealing with fuel suppliers , June 2002
- According to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), one of the overarching objectives for the new NCC is to “place responsibility for handling complaints back onto industry”. www.berr.gov.uk/consumers/consumer-support/consumervoice/index.html