Jonathan Reed: A power struggle for the poor old customer

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AS soon as the energy bill landed, I knew what was about to follow.

Sure enough, a few days later another email arrived in my inbox. Despite paying by a fixed monthly direct debit and my account showing significant credit even after the latest bill had been calculated, my supplier announced it had reviewed my payments and felt I should be paying it another £70-plus each year to cover my anticipated bills.

It didn’t surprise me because it is the fourth time it has happened in the past couple of years. Of course energy prices have soared in that time, but my monthly payment seems to have been set so high in the first place that it still comfortably covers the costs of the energy I actually use. The first time it happened, I did what I suspect most customers do – nothing. I allowed the increase to kick in and other than feeling mild irritation I thought nothing more of it.

But when it happened a second time a couple of bills later I decided to take a stand. The request made no sense, other than to fill the company’s coffers.

One furious email later and I accepted a partial victory – although my payment was increased, I was sent a cheque for the £200 of credit I had built up in my account. Maybe I celebrated too soon, because I only had to wait a few months to get yet another email, again informing me my payments needed to be increased. I challenged, and this time my payments were kept at their existing level.

And then, just over a week ago, the same again, despite the fact that I was able to prove that my current payments would still cover a 38 per cent increase in bills from the previous 12 months – far higher than even the painful price increases suppliers have introduced. Once more, the company has backed down in the face of another stern email and my payments will remain unchanged.

Energy companies haven’t had the best of press in recent times, but it isn’t just the prices they charge that is the issue – it is also the way they treat their customers.

The truth is I should not be having to fire off an angry email every time my bill lands to stop the supplier taking more of my money. Either the computer system it uses to calculate the level of direct debits is worryingly inaccurate, or the company deliberately wants to fill up its bank account with my money.

Surely if customers are to be encouraged to pay by a fixed monthly direct debit, it should be set at an amount that covers the cost of bills over a 12-month period – that means building up credit during the summer, when usage is lower, and going into debit in the winter, when the central heating is turned up.

Yet from my experience, companies are happy for you to build up the credit, money which it can then use to invest, but are not so keen for you to dip into debit. I realise it is not easy to project how much a customer will need to pay over the course of a year, and I certainly think it’s better for companies to pay close attention to accounts so people do not fall way behind and are suddenly landed with an eye-watering bill.

But that should not be an excuse to chase profits at the expense of the consumer. In my case, they know exactly how much energy I have used in recent years and also know my account was more than £80 in credit even after the last bill was settled, so what justification can there be for trying to increase my payments?

With energy bills said to have rocketed by £224 – or 21 per cent – within the last year, the Government has quite rightly urged customers to use consumer power more wisely and change supplier to seek the best deal. Yet when I have searched around, the best price has always been with the same supplier, leaving me with a choice of putting up with the behaviour or paying more elsewhere with no guarantee I would not face exactly the same issues there. Some choice.

Finally the Big Six suppliers are feeling some heat from politicians – both the Government and Labour talked tough about reform of the energy market at their party conferences and have continued the theme since. Customers can only hope that helping new entrants to compete in the market will drive down prices but also put more focus on serving customers rather than thinking first of shareholders.

But it should not take this for customers to expect decent treatment in the first place. Having now challenged an increase in my payments three times, I am hoping I will not be receiving another email when my next bill is calculated. I will not hold my breath, though.