OPINION: No wonder utility companies are hated

It seems that the power companies have replaced bankers as public enemy number one.The press and politicians are currently pursuing them on the basis of recent price increases.

However, while I bow to no-one in my low regard for our electricity supplier (obviously gas doesn’t come within miles of here), price isn’t my main gripe – although if there is evidence of profiteering that would simply put the tin lid on it.

Underlying costs are clearly rising and I don’t believe it it is possible to buck the market to make producers operate at a loss, unless it is that peculiar sort of industry where the producers feel that they have to carry on anyway because they have a calling to do so and in some instances may feel obligated to continue in a family tradition of many generations. But enough about agriculture.

We have also done what we can to mitigate price increases by changing supplier several times and are in the middle of a three-year fixed contract. No – while price rises are not good news they may be unavoidable. But the poor way in which utility companies handle their customers is not. It is this poor customer service from utility companies (including telecommunications) which really annoys me.

Here’s what our current power supplier did. They sent us an estimated bill which was about right, so we make the mistake of not reporting a meter reading. The fact that we didn’t seems to have prompted them to double, yes, double, our monthly direct debit payment.

There appeared to be nothing we could do to get it sorted out quickly. We couldn’t even speak to a human being to complain – we had to e-mail them and await a response “within seven days”. When it came, the pronouncement was that they would review the situation at the end of the year.

We operate a hill farm. We have never been heavy users of electricity and haven’t recently branched out into growing cannabis. So why would it be at all reasonable to assume our energy usage would have doubled? Of course it hadn’t, as the regular meter readings which we submitted showed.

So, after a year they did review the situation and we are now paying £1 per month until the balance of the overpayment is used up. No apology, no interest. Another dissatisfied customer.

We have also endured prolonged and exhausting campaigns with the phone people over the years. You always need to set aside half an hour to get through, go through a series of options, and get passed between departments before you speak to someone who claims they will deal with your problem. They agree to do something within 72 hours. Nothing happens. Then you have to go through the whole palaver again.

A few weeks ago we had a real crisis on changing our broadband supplier. The new hub didn’t work and it emerged after several conversations with the help desk, somewhere where they didn’t understand colloquial English, that an engineer would have to come out and that would take four days.

Four days with no internet. Jake described his home as like a scene from Trainspotting, as his children and his wife experienced severe withdrawal symptoms. No access to bank accounts, e-mails, up-to-date information, Twitter and whatever the kids use it for. We were finally reduced to having to speak to each other for entertainment.

Again there was no apology or refund. No wonder everyone hates utility companies.

Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.

What do you think about this subject? Have your say on our forums .

See more