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Energy firms' customer service worst on record

BBC News logo BBC News 1/7/2022
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Customer service standards at energy companies have fallen to a record low as households are being hit by soaring bills, Citizens Advice has said.

Standards have "plummeted" since June 2021 when several suppliers went bust due to high global gas prices, it said.

The average waiting time on the phone to speak to a firm is now about six and a half minutes, compared to just under four minutes the year before.

Citizens Advice called for improvements before bills rise again in the autumn.

The energy price cap, which limits how much suppliers can raise the cost of household bills, went up by an unprecedented £700 a year to £1,971 in April for the typical household. Bills are expected to rise by a further £800 a year in October.

The rise in bills is down to wholesale gas prices soaring in recent months. Demand increased as economies reopened following Covid restrictions, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has fuelled fears over supplies, pushing prices up further.

The increase in the wholesale cost of gas - the price at which energy companies buy it - caught many suppliers out and meant they were losing money on price promises to customers. This led to several, mostly smaller, firms going bust and millions of customers being shifted to new suppliers.

Between January and March 2022, Citizens Advice said its consumer service helpline saw more than 70,000 cases related to energy issues - a 63% increase on the same period the previous year.

The charity said it was "particularly worried" about people on prepayment meters, who it said are at risk of having no gas or electricity if they can't afford to top up.

It warned that "without swift action" to tackle poor customer service, standards "will only worsen when bills are expected to hike again this winter".

Energy suppliers are obliged to help people who cannot afford their bills.

"At a time when customers need all the support they can get, it's worrying to see service performance is the worst on record," said Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

"This leaves people frustrated and in the dark at the end of the phone.

"We recognise call centre staff are working incredibly hard to answer as many calls as possible, but energy companies must do better."

Citizens Advice said companies were also getting slightly slower to respond to emails. On average, suppliers responded to 62% of emails within two working days, compared with 66% during the same period in 2021.

'Up your game'

The charity ranked energy suppliers through its "star rating" after looking at information from a number of sources, including its complaints to its consumer service and the energy ombudsman.

It ranked Utilita, Ovo Energy, Ecotricity and E.On Energy as the four worst performing suppliers for customer service.

All four firms have been contacted for comment.

Ofgem, the UK's energy regulator, said it was working with suppliers to improve service, adding that "now is the time for them to up their game".

"Our top priority is to protect consumers, and as these stats from Citizens Advice show, there are areas where customers are simply not getting the service they desperately need and rightly expect in these very difficult times," it said.

"We are clear with suppliers - they must not use the current gas crisis as an excuse for poor performance or sharp practices."

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