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Don’t keep me hanging on the telephone…

Debbie Harry in sunglasses holding a microphone
21 November 2022

Ian Preston director of household energy services at the Centre for Sustainable Energy is fed up with the appalling customer service from energy suppliers.

Hanging on the Telephone is a song written by Jack Lee. The song was released in 1976 by the pop band The Nerves. But it was made famous by Blondie when they recorded and released it in 1978. But the hours and hours we waste trying to communicate with energy suppliers about our clients is getting on our Nerves.

Advice agencies like us at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) are wasting thousands of hours a week on the phone trying to get through to energy suppliers so we can advocate for people too vulnerable to do so themselves.

Many of the people we support are in desperate circumstances, living in cold homes, in debt, struggling with energy bills and suffering with mental or physical health problems.

Every moment counts

Every moment we waste on hold with an energy supplier is a moment we could be supporting someone else.

Every moment counts. Around 7 million people could be in fuel poverty this winter and our services are experiencing the biggest demand we’ve ever seen thanks to the energy crisis and cost of living crisis.

We’ve repeatedly raised the issue of long hold times with energy suppliers with Ofgem, the industry regulator and the government department BEIS, but little has changed to improve the situation.

Back in 2019, Ofgem published its Consumer Vulnerability Strategy and the energy suppliers all made voluntary commitments (which we haven’t seen) to support it.  This was supposed to set the priorities to help protect gas and electricity consumers in vulnerable situations.

Let’s remind ourselves of the five core commitments within this strategy:

Fast forward to 2022. Nothing has changed

Gas and electricity consumers in vulnerable situations are not being protected! We need energy suppliers to provide a dedicated line for services supporting vulnerable clients. Our advisors are supporting people who are unable to actively take part in the energy market.

Instead, our advisors waste hours getting through to a supplier, they face constant issues getting added to the account as an advocate, and when we succeed here we then often find we aren’t named on the account when we call again. It’s a troubling mess and sadly, it’s a case of eat, sleep, repeat.

Ofgem has previously asked us to track call wait times and note the length of calls… essentially monitor the market. Unfortunately, we aren’t funded to carry out this evaluation and the funds we do have fall far short of the demand we face.

Unbelieveable “customer service”

Here’s one typical example of the horrendous customer service and conflicting information offered by the same company which, on this occasion, has pushed someone into debt.

Debbie (not her real name) contacted the CSE team because she’s been struggling to resolve debt and payment issues with her supplier SSE since November 2021. She’s registered disabled and has multiple conditions. Debbie is on SSE’s Priority Services Register which means they are aware of her health conditions too.   

Debbie prefers to use an energy payment card to make payments towards her bill at the post office. She finds this easier to manage because of her health conditions and she originally chose SSE as her supplier because they offered this payment method.

In November 2021, Debbie discovered her payment card was not working so she wasn’t able to pay her bills. She also realised her bills had been changed to being based on estimates, despite having smart meters installed.

Debbie was worried about falling into debt, so she contacted SSE straight away to resolve this issue. But she experienced terrible customer service every time she called. It took hours to get through to someone. Once, she waited almost five hours being transferred between several different departments before getting through to an advisor.

SSE told Debbie the energy payment cards were no longer a form of accepted payment. They did not attempt to help her set up a new payment method before hanging up without solving any of the issues that she’d raised.

That’s when we stepped in. CSE’s energy advisor Daisy contacted SSE on Debbie’s behalf and was told the meter issues would be fixed within 10 working days, and that they would send out a new energy payment card.

Unfortunately, nothing happened. Daisy contacted SSE several times, opening four different complaints on the case. Finally, CSE had to open a complaint with the Ombudsman.

As far as we can tell, SSE hasn’t recorded anything about this case or the issues we’ve raised. They have not recorded any of the complaints, despite giving us the complaint reference numbers, which they then said did not exist.

SSE has not responded to any emails Daisy sent and every time we phone, the customer service team say CSE is not named on the account to advocate for Debbie, despite this being arranged at the start of seven calls.

Seven calls!

Debbie still doesn’t have a resolution. It looks like SSE hasn’t done what the Ombudsman asked them to. Even though they’ve recorded that they have implemented the resolutions! And meanwhile, SSE has refused to send an up-to-date bill to Debbie, so she has no idea what her usage is or what her debt is.

We’re given conflicting information every time we contact them.

Dejected and demoralised

SSE’s appalling customer service clearly has a huge impact on the wellbeing of the client and our advisor, who’s feeling utterly dejected and demoralised. Our client, Debbie, now believes that SSE have purposely put her into debt.

Not only is this completely unacceptable customer service. It’s also wasting huge amounts of our time. We’ve spent a day trying to communicate with SSE, for just this one person. We probably wasted another half of a day communicating their incompetence back to the client. That’s several hundred pounds of funding down the drain, when we could have been doing far more productive things for our clients.

Waste of time and money 

During this time, we could have done four benefit checks saving over £20,000 per person or two clearance debt applications saving people £5,000.

This is a story that will be very familiar to organisations like us delivering energy advice across the country. Our services have no core funding. There is no national fuel poverty advice service. As advice providers, we are collectively trying to address a market failure that both the government and Ofgem have failed to address.

There used to be a fantastic network of local Energy Efficiency Advice Centres doing this work, but the government failed to see its value. We scrape together funding from numerous sources to try and deliver the best possible outcomes for our clients. So, you can see how frustrating it is when we are wasting this precious money speaking to energy suppliers who frankly don’t care.

I wonder how Raman Bhatia, Chief Operating Officer of OVO (which owns SSE’s retail arm) would feel if they knew that members of their senior leadership team regularly wasted days trying to solve the same issue. And that it has been happening for decades.

As I said before eat, sleep, repeat.

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