Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Dealing with British power companies: enough to depress anyone

I apologise for my absence last week. I was a trifle depressed. Or, to be more accurate, a horse burger depressed.

Though at least I had something to be depressed about, namely a substantial dose of work-related stress. Which is less disturbing, as any depressive can tell you, than the tsunami of gloom that occasionally engulfs the sufferer quite unexpectedly, for no obvious reason at all.

I dragged myself back to work after a couple of days and promptly burst into tears when someone said something nice to me, which is never good for my image as a hardened cynic.

A cynic, though perhaps not hardened enough

Cynical, yes, though I hope not unsympathetic, because a certain amount of empathy seems critical to the whole public relations process. A lesson clearly not grasped by the power company that recently upset one acquaintance through its heavy-handed approach to transferring an electricity account into her name after the sadly premature death of her partner.

She felt moved to make a formal complaint, which swiftly elicited a computer-generated letter of apology. Which might have helped had it not been brilliantly addressed to the deceased account holder. So she complained again. Predictably, the dead man then received another, even more grovelling, letter.

This could easily run as long as The Mousetrap. Much like the apparently never-ending pursuit of my dear wife by the same power company and two successive debt collectors over a small bill left unpaid by a former tenant of the house she occupied before we got married.

Mentioning no names, but ...

For some reason these goons failed to acknowledge her notification that she had changed her surname on marriage, then unilaterally accorded her a sex change from Miss to Mr on their files. So whenever they rang her up (which latterly was several times per day) they then refused to speak to her because she was clearly not the man they were looking for. Attempts to correspond by e-mail fell at the self-same hurdle.

Imagine their delight when they somehow got hold of my personal ex-directory number, because I am unmistakably a man and might therefore be just the lead they were after – if not the bill dodger himself operating under an unlikely pseudonym.

The hole in the triangle presumably symbolises the debt which this shower set out to collect for their clients; dealing with them can only be described as Kafkaesque

Reams of documents have been photocopied and despatched by recorded delivery to demonstrate who is actually responsible for the trifling debt at the heart of this dispute, and to provide his last known address. All have been promptly lost, at which point any normal company would apologise and give up. This lot just expect Mrs Hann to go through the expensive rigmarole of sending them all over again.

My wife’s own costs have vastly exceeded the amount claimed in the first place, never mind the hundreds of pounds in fees that must have been run up by the debt collectors. I did suggest that this argued for the simple if unjust solution of simply paying them to go away but, as my wife contends, “It’s the principle of the thing”. If you settle one bill you don’t owe for the sake of a quiet life, where will it end?

But that’s power companies for you. As if charging like the Light Brigade for our energy were not enough, in my experience they feel compelled to add insult to injury by screwing up every attempt at customer communication.

Ditto the laughably named British Telecom, who make it all but impossible for me to work at home because of the unreliability of the feeble broadband connection for which I pay handsomely each quarter. I long ago gave up complaining because I could never get through to anyone who spoke my language.

"I can assure you, sir, that I have checked your line and it is working perfectly. Hello? Hello?"

I refuse to blame this on privatisation. I remember having to stand in Soviet-style queues in bleak utility showrooms to secure gas, electricity and a telephone line when I bought my first flat in 1981, and there was nothing good about those old days.

Yet somehow us customers need to unite against the monolithic service providers of this country and make it clear that they must give some priority to our simple needs for reliability, affordability, responsiveness and politeness, particularly when things go wrong.

Otherwise we might all have good reasons for feeling ever so slightly depressed

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne

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