Management: How are you being served?: They're very good at issuing bills. A pity about the service

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Privatised utilities may now be able to locate the bottom line, but they often remain uneasy with customer service. Indeed, to some it is a complete mystery. A friend answered the door one day to find a bright young salesman from a new gas supplier. He promised attractive savings if my friend transferred his business. No great lover of his current gas supplier, he signed up on the spot.

Responsible to the last, he told the gas company that he was changing supplier and would like a final bill. It did not send one. In fact, a few phone calls later, it still had not sent one. To cap it all, my friend then received letters from his original supplier threatening legal action for non-payment of his final bill. Outraged, he was quickly on the phone. The gas supplier was unmoved and brought in its ultimate sanction: it would cut off his supply. The trouble was it no longer supplied the gas - the new supplier had taken over three months previously.

Utilities are at their most troublesome when it comes to billing. A gas supplier changed its name as part of a hugely expensive identity crisis. There was the usual fanfare as the new name was unveiled. The company boasted that the new identity would enable it to become "closer to its customers".

One such customer was a stereotypically canny Scot who read his bank statements with extraordinary diligence. Reading his latest statement, he found that instead of one standing order paying his gas bill, he now had two. The company extracted its usual amount under its old name, and the same amount under its new name. That seemed an imaginative means of paying the hefty invoices of the brand consultants involved in the company's reinvention.

The customer was a patient man. In these days of IT systems, it seemed likely that the gas company would soon identify and correct the mistake. It did not, so he wrote asking it to sort out the problem. The gas company never replied, but changed the standing orders and reimbursed his account. The problem was solved, but at what cost to the customer's view of the company?

What is amazing about bad service received from utilities is that people often provide them with an excuse. "It must be incredibly difficult dealing with five million customers," they say. Of course, it is complex. But it is a curious fact of life that bills always arrive on time. Companies appear able to send five million bills out and get the vast majority correct.

Their problem is that when things go wrong, they are unable to treat customers as individuals. Even simple things seem beyond them. I wanted to complain about the time I had to wait to have my boiler repaired and rang the number for the gas service company. "Can I speak to your customer service department?" I asked. "It's not actually based here, but I can give you the number," said the person at the other end. I dutifully wrote down the number, prepared my irate customer speech and rang. The number was dead.

If a company can extract gas from the North Sea and deliver it to your home, it should be able to give you a genuine telephone number with someone helpful at the end of it. It should be able to reply to a letter and apologise,

One of the reasons we provide excuses for utilities is that our expectations are not high. But compare them to other big companies. If we buy a can of beer and find that it is flat or not as good as one we drank last week, do we comment that it must be difficult for the company to produce 50 million cans of beer a year? No, we complain, switch brands, write to the customer services department. And, if they are really serious about getting close to their customers, they respond immediately.