Jayne Dowle: Betrayed by British Gas, why they won't burn my finances again

British Gas customer service is under fire.British Gas customer service is under fire.
British Gas customer service is under fire.
LET me count the ways in which British Gas has let me down. First there was the £200-plus monthly direct debit this multi-million company demanded to service an underpayment to their satisfaction.

Then there was the time when I managed to reduce our household gas consumption by half. The fire was switched off. The radiators were rationed. My reward? A letter informing me that my monthly payment was to rocket in return for my frugality.

Nothing though, compares to coming home to find a debt collector’s demand on the mat. In February, I finally had enough. I switched my dual fuel account to another supplier, EDF. To set this process in motion, I phoned to transfer the electricity bill into my sole name – it still bore the details of my former husband, who left in 2014. I thought it had been done. I heard nothing to inform me that it hadn’t.

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This was where the trouble started. When the accounts were closed, the process was not completed properly. The electricity bill remained principally in my husband’s name. Even though I had signed up to paperless billing, where my email address and mobile number were clearly visible, and the monthly £112 came directly out of my bank account, I never received a reminder to pay the outstanding balance accrued.

I’ve been moving house. Things get overlooked. If a reminder had popped into my inbox, I would have rung up automated payments and settled forthwith. I have never, ever, knowingly missed a monthly payment for anything. All my utilities and outgoings are met by direct debit.

I was absolutely mortified by the debt collector’s letter, but even more distressed to find that its arrival had sent my much-nurtured Experian credit score plummeting to “poor”. This is what British Gas has the power to do to a decent, upstanding, direct-debit paying customer of more than a decade’s standing. With one stroke, it can destroy their financial reputation.

I paid immediately. And complained, obviously. I can’t fault the actions of Sarah in the managing director’s office who investigated, sympathised and – within 48 hours – reversed the black mark against my credit score and cancelled the £18 administration fee the debt collector charged.

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What though if I wasn’t well-informed, articulate and capable of complaining?

I share this experience with you because I passionately believe that customers are unfairly treated over and over again by utility companies which purport to serve us.

Only the other week, a survey by comparison website uSwitch found that gas and electricity bills are still a mystery for six out of 10 British people. Despite Ofgem compelling energy companies to make bills clearer and include crucial details, such as their cheapest tariff, nearly half of customers said they had seen no difference.

It’s not just energy. I’ve had issues of a similar – but not so serious – nature with BT, Vodafone and Sky. The same failings unite them all. These gigantic corporations are so huge that one department literally does not talk to another. Their computer systems are probably amongst the most advanced in the world. However, a combination of human inputting error and automated processes combine to create a perfect storm which puts the customer right at its eye.

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This customer is treated as a defaulter, whether they have a decade’s worth of unblemished payments or have spent the past 10 years robbing the meter. And this reliance on email to pursue a matter so serious it requires the muscle of a debt collection agency? Why not send a good old-fashioned letter, or even a text? Clearly, their staff know how to use a phone. Nothing is more galling than one of those “how did we do?” text messages which pop up when you’ve had cause to complain.

I wish that was all – but before I close this sorry tale, there’s another way British Gas have let me down. During my electricity trauma, it came to light that apparently the gas element of my dual fuel account was in credit to the tune of £70. There was the sum in black and white when I logged onto to my online account. Even the nice chap in the Indian call centre said I was in credit.

So although slightly bemused, I was expecting a refund. Only to receive a phone call from Sarah again. She was so sorry she said, but there had been a mistake. My gas account hadn’t been closed down properly either. I was actually more than £300 in the red. Turns out that a final gas bill had not been prepared when I switched. When would I have found out? Never? Or when another debt collector’s letter appeared on my mat?

And they dare to talk to us, their customers, about efficiency. British Gas are offering a £54.04 discount as gesture of “goodwill” and the opportunity to pay the amount monthly. I am so astounded at their ineptitude that even I am lost for words.