How to complain about your energy supplier
The amount we spend on heating and lighting our homes has soared in recent years, and we're all familiar with that sickening feeling when you open your energy bill to find that you owe a large amount. However, power companies don't always get it right when dealing with their customers.
Complaints to energy companies have soared recently. New figures from the Energy Ombudsman showed that the number of people making official complaints is now at its highest ever. More people made complaints to the ombudsman about their energy company in the first six months of this year than in the whole of 2013.
But these complaints - 84% of which were about billing issues - may be the tip of the iceberg.
"You can only go to the ombudsman once you have made a complaint to your energy company first," explains Tom Lyon, energy expert at comparison site uSwitch. "If it is a simple complaint, it can most likely be resolved with a phone call to your supplier."
The 22,000 complaints made to the ombudsman in the past six months represent only those issues that could not be resolved at supplier level.
Much of the recent rise in complaints was due feeling more to problems with two suppliers, npower and Scottish Power, which have both introduced new billing systems that resulted in a doubling in complaints about both providers in the first quarter of this year. Many bills had been sent extremely late, meaning that customers were having to find large sums of money at short notice.
Energy regulator Ofgem also opened an investigation into npower's prolonged customer service failings, the first under its new standards of conduct, which state suppliers must treat consumers fairly.
Npower said it was working hard to resolve complaints. "In June, we had reduced complaints from 41,000 at the end of May to 30,000," a spokesperson said. "We've put in place hundreds more staff to the complaints area to work and resolve these quickly and accurately."
Lewis Shand Smith, the chief energy ombudsman, commented that the spike in complaints was due partly to the rising cost of living but also partly due to the fact that energy customers are more aware of their rights.
"Consumers are feeling more empowered to act and fight for a fair deal," he said.
If something goes wrong between you and your energy company, you will want to get it sorted as quickly and painlessly as possible. Lyon, at uSwitch, says there are many things you can do to ensure that this happens. "Following the correct procedure is important," he says.
The nine-step complaints process
1. Whatever the issue is with your energy company, the first step is to complain to the supplier directly. Start by making a phone call. "Remember to write down the time and date of your call, the name of the person you spoke to and the details of what was said as you may need to refer to them later," Lyon advises.
2. He adds that you should be sure to follow up your call with an email or letter if the issue is complex. When writing, remember to include your account number to make it easier for the supplier to deal with your complaint. You should also include a complaint or case reference number if you are following up on earlier correspondence. Just including those simple details could save you weeks of bureaucratic hassle. Scan bills or other correspondence to send to the supplier, ensuring that you keep the originals.
3. The Energy Ombudsman, which is the final arbiter of all energy complaints, says that you must give the supplier "reasonable opportunity" to deal with the problem before escalating it to a higher level. Each supplier will have a copy of its complaints procedure
on its website.
For example, npower says it will attempt to resolve your complaints within 10 working days. If it takes longer than this, the company says it will tell you the likely timescale and keep you informed of progress. British Gas says it will attempt to resolve your complaint immediately, and that you can refer your complaint to the ombudsman if it is still unresolved after eight weeks.
For smaller suppliers, such as Spark Energy, Ovo and First Utility, you can refer your complaint 12 weeks after you've complained to the supplier.
4. You can also pass a complaint on to the ombudsman if you receive what is known as a "deadlock letter". This letter may not contain the word "deadlock" but will indicate that the supplier has reached the end of its complaints procedure without a conclusion that satisfies both parties. Once you have complained about a company, you have nine months after the first complaint, or six months after a deadlock letter, to approach the ombudsman.
5. Crucially, while the complaint is ongoing, do not stop paying your supplier for its services or you may weaken your position or end up with a poor credit rating. Ask the supplier to put the disputed amount that you owe on hold (and get a letter confirming that this has happened) and continue to pay the rest. Vulnerable customers, such as the elderly, disabled or those on very low incomes, may be able to get help and advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau to help their case.
6. According to the ombudsman, the main customer issues that are passed on to the service for resolution are billing problems (84% of complaints) and issues with switching providers (13%). Lyon says that one way to help ensure you don't end up with a supplier that treats customers badly is to check the published complaints data from the ombudsman before you switch to them.
"Complaints data is useful and valuable, as it is indicative of customer service," he says. This is available on the Energy Ombudsman website at ombudsman-services.org.
7. It is worth noting that the ombudsman can only deal with certain types of problem that you might have with your energy company, including billing, switching and sales activity. It can't, however, deal with a price increase or with a problem that occurred a long time ago.
8. Complaining to the ombudsman is free for you as a customer, and the decision it makes is binding on the energy company. The organisation says that it usually resolves complaints within four to six weeks, and the company then has 28 days to carry out anything that has been required by the ombudsman.
Some of the decisions it can make include requiring a financial award of up to £10,000, an apology, an explanation of what went wrong and practical action to correct the problem. If you reject the ombudsman's decision, you lose the right to the resolution it has offered but you can still take your complaint to the courts if you so choose.
9. Finally, if you receive a bill for energy services that stretches back for more than a year, you may be able to avoid a large payment. Electricity and gas providers are supposed to adhere to a code called the Energy UK Code of Practice for Accurate Bills that stipulates no customer should have to cover a payment shortfall dating back more than 12 months if the supplier was at fault. If this affects you, ask the energy company to review the bill under the code, and if this fails, go to the ombudsman.
If you’ve have a complaint about a financial service product you have bought but the company you bought it from refuses to resolve your problem after eight weeks, the Ombudsman can help. The Ombudsman will investigate and resolve the matter. The Ombudsman is independent and its service is free to consumers. The Ombudsman may find in the company’s favour but consumers don’t have accept its decision and are always free to go to court instead. But if they do accept an Ombudsman’s decision, it is binding both on them and on the business.