British Gas - the 101 of bullying
If you sent someone a letter in which you threatened them with breaking into their homes because they hadn't paid a bill that you hadn't actually bothered to send them, the courts would take a somewhat dim view of you. Yet that appears to be a perfectly acceptable element of British Gas's working model and they're able to get away with it.
I had a disconnection letter from them this week, warning of me of the "severe conseqences" which this most arrogant of corporate bullies was about to inflict. This included getting a warrant to enter my premises and then charging me £361 for the privilege. I was slightly disappointed that they seem to have removed the line that used to be on some of their correspondence about getting the police to break into my property on their behalf - possibly the police have decided they're not so keen on being seen as British Gas's private lynch mob for hire?
The thing that puzzled me was I didn't recall seeing a bill or reminder. I checked my files and correspondence and sure enough there had been no bill sent. I called the phone number on the disconnection letter and spoke to someone in an Indian call centre who told me that of course there was no paper bill as I had asked for paperless billling. Now, I most emphatically had not. I have no form of paperless billing from any utilities supplier. Point of petty principle on my part, I want a bit of paper for my records, so I knew she was talking rot. I told her this was not the case and we embarked on the tediously inevitable round of 'computer says you have so therefore you have'.
Then she told me that in order to stop having paperless bills and start receiving paper bills, I needed to log back in using the name and password I had used to register for paperless billing ("I haven't registered for paperless billing!" I shouted). I asked her how I could use these login details as I'd never signed up in the first place and as such had no idea what they were supposed to be. She couldn't help me sir as that would break the Data Protection Act. Ah, yes, the other great British Gas standby - when computer says no doesn't work any more, claim it's a matter of Data Protection and all for your own good, sir, now please get knotted.
I asked for a supervisor. She put the phone down. I called back, went through the whole routine again, and this time a male call centre person put the phone down when I asked for a supervisor. This was not a matter that warranted a supervisor, he told me. I am a customer making a complaint, but that's not something that warrants a supervisor's attention, I asked. Not in his view, he said, and put the phone down.
I called back for a third time and went through the whole routine again. This time I asked for a number to call to make a complaint. This was grudgingly given out, but only after several requests. This time I put the phone down (a minor psychological victory!) and I called the complaints number and got through....to a dead line!
I called back again on a different British Gas number and finally got through to a UK call centre. The guy on the phone this time was a bit more helpful and admitted he was baffled by the whole thing. I asked him to put me through to the complaints department. He said there wasn't a number he could put me through to. I said the Indian call centre had given me a number to call, but it didn't work. This didn't see to surprise the UK guy - "That's not a number I recognise."
So, I asked, the Indian lot were just lying to get me off the phone by doling out some random number? He wasn't about to be drawn on that one, but maybe it's an interesting new British Gas customer relations policy? Fob 'em off with a fake number and hope they'll go away?. Anyway, he said, the only way to talk to British Gas about a complaint was to write to them by snail mail!!!
I can't say I blame them. The number of complaints that this brutal thuggish company must generate in any working day must be more than any switchboard could ever hope to handle. How many customers will bother to go to the trouble to write a letter? There must be a fairly good chance they won't which will help when claiming that customer complaints numbers are going down. Hurrah and big bonuses all round!
There really is a wider set of questions to be asked about British Gas and its atrocious attitude to its customers. The letters it sends out are aggressive and threateningly worded and must strike fear into the hearts of many customers who aren't ready or willing or able to be as gobby as I am when faced with such shameless bullying.
When dealing with British Gas I feel I'm facing down a bunch of gangsters who are simply out to intimidate and demand money with menaces. You end up shouting and getting irate, but ultimately you're powerless in the face of their universal indifference, downright incompetence and now it seems tactical misinformation.
If I behaved the way British Gas does to my own clients or sent out the kind of communications they do, I'd rightly be (a) earning no money and (b) potentially getting a visit from Plod. So how do they continue to get away with it?