Ironically, I decided to start writing this whilst I was on hold (for the second time in the last 30 minutes) with one of Australia’s big three dirty utilities. So far I have been transferred four times, cut off once, entered my details three times and repeated it verbally all while being bombarded by a horrendously crappy song about how awesome this company is.
It strikes me that if customer service is a measure, the death spiral has not only begun, but we are surrounded by a growing pile of stinking corpses.
In my particular case, I have been a loyal customer of AGL (for gas) for 11 years in my current property and have paid them around $7000 for gas over that period. I suspect thats a damn good rate of return for them. They read my (20 year old?) meter for the first 9 years or so and then a couple of years ago started estimating my reads because (apparently) my dog was wearing his invisibility cloak for the first 9 years and then he must have lost it, or buried it, or something. So the meter reader freaked out because a daloodle (thats a dalmatian poodle cross) suddenly appeared (his favourite spot is sitting on the outdoor table which I admit is weird) but more importantly, they are renowned as savage killer attack dogs. Yep, you heard it here first, all the car yards are trading in their alsatians and dobermans and american pitbulls and installing herds of daloodle’s.
So I tolerated this for a while and then I called AGL to search for a resolution. As a renter, I can’t shift my meter and it would cost thousands and need to be on the footpath which is tricky. We talked about introducing the meter reader to the dog. We talked about installing a periscope so the reader could see it ( the kids and I tried to make one but its harder than it looks!). I suggested they install a remote monitor and stop sending the reader out but no, too expensive. I priced web-cam’s and figured I could project a reading onto the wall for them. None of these were acceptable. The only solution was for me to read the meter myself, write on their scrappy piece of paper, take time off work, drive to the post office, park, wait in line, pay for a stamp and mail it to them.
Now by this point, my goat was well and truly got. “I am paying for a meter read as a part of my costs, for travel, reading, data collection and accurate billing, how can you possibly be allowed to charge me for that if you aren’t providing that service?” I said. My understanding of Australian Consumer Law is that you can’t charge for a service you don’t provide and further, that I am allowed to be compensated for unforeseen consequential damages and cost. Had this not been going on for years, I could tolerate it but for goodness sake its going to keep happening the same way every 90 days unless something changes. (Read my letter to them here)
Their response was (and I quote): “The Australian Consumer Law does not apply to us“. So I threatened to leave. Their response? “You have no choice; AGL Jemena are the exclusive provider of Gas in NSW”.
So I went back into my cave for a while and forgot about bloody AGL and terrified Jemena.
Then, some months ago, I received my very expensive, quarterly scrap of grubby paper from my terrified meter reader. In a salient moment, I sat down to read the fine print again and just happened to notice an email address in point 0005 font. I walked over to the meter took a photo and emailed it to them. Problem solved I thought and one or two bills looked right but I was staggered to think that in a multinational hi tech energy service provider “with hundreds of years of expertise” and thousands of employee’s no one else had thought to suggest that. Had I not innovated my own solution, I’d still be trekking off to the post office, presumably just like the other 1,562,140 other dog owners need to do in NSW. (nb; I haven’t excluded people who do own alsatians, dobermans and american pitbulls but you get my point – I can’t be alone)
So, anyway my latest bill recently arrived. Then the next day, another bill arrived. One was for $52 and was an estimated read. The other was a “customer read” and was for $129 + $52 which was apparently now overdue. Hang on; how can I be billed for an estimate AND a real read, in aggregate? My average daily consumption of gas had also inexplicably jumped from 4.77MJ of gas to 593.5 MJ of gas; a 12,617% increase. So I rang again, got disconnected transferred, deafened by horrendous static and messages of wonderful service and panda bears and such, and finally got a nice but very firm lady. Eventually she admitted that “You are quite correct, we have double billed you and should not have” and also that “Yes we stated that your bill was overdue, but it’s not”. She also told me that the consumption was completely messed up because they failed to reconcile to estimated and real reads.
So they agreed to credit the $52 and send a new bill. To get it correct they would be (wait for it)………… sending out the meter reader to get an updated read.
So what does this personal experience with my gas utility tell us?
1) They are a monopoly provider and have no competition. None. As a consumer I have zero choice.
2)According to their staff I have no protection or rights under Australian Consumer Law and they can bill me for a service they don’t provide. Further, they are not obliged to compensate me for the consequential costs I incur as result of them breaching their contract. I asked and they refused to compensate me.
3)Their billing system is not intelligent enough to cope with or trigger abnormalities even if they are 12,617% different to average and they are a company with several gazillion dollars of revenue and profits.
Now, I could bang on about my equally incompetent electricity retailer and similar recent stories of bizarre letters, retractions and changes to contracts that they just made, but thats another story.
For now what we have is a real world example of woeful behaviour, utter disdain for customer service and an inability to think outside the box.
By total co-incidence our friends at Greenpeace are all over this issue and just today released a new report and web-site highlighting this exact issue. Their report “The Dirty Three” describes another example of how the three biggest utilities in Australia are systematically blocking the growth of renewables and increasing their non renewable energy supplies by disseminating myths and distortions of the truth around the RET. The good news for consumers is, they have also launched a new web site called the Green Electricity Guide that ranks the greenest electricity retailers.
Between all this stench, my daloodle’s dreadlocks and the greenness I’m going to leave you and the utilities with a song that sums up the inevitable outcome of all this ;
Photo Credit: Australia Solar Conflicts/shutterstock