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First Utility's New Customer Service Measures Overwhelm Company, Underwhelm Customers

November 28, 2012

In most business operation, there's always room for improvement. Finding out where problems are and addressing them is a key step in actually overcoming these problems and creating the improvement that any business wants to see. For First Utility, they've recently discovered that the impact of new customer service measures may not be having the effect they'd intended.

While First Utility is doing a fine job, according to reports, providing energy services at terrific prices, a report came out from one customer who attempted to make a switch from British Gas to First Utility, which documented the subsequent experience the customer had making the switch. The customer in question discovered  that there were substantial savings afoot, lowering costs from 666 pounds sterling (about $1,066 U.S.) to around 566 pounds sterling ($905 U.S.) per year. But when the first bill arrived, and higher than first estimated--this customer would have paid more than double originally paid to British Gas--there was some understandable bill shock, and then the problems began.

A call to First Utility's customer service department turned into an ordeal, spending 25 minutes on hold without being able to talk to anyone. A second call took 30 minutes on hold. An e-mail from the online contact form went unanswered. Finally, Twitter (News - Alert) seemed the last option, and that was where the true extent of the customer service problem at First Utility was revealed.

In the Twitter feed, a stack of complaints had formed, and all strikingly similar: a litany of customers describing in 140 characters or less their own multi-contact approach, seemingly going ignored.

Perhaps worst of all is First Utility's choice for a customer service line. They're using what's known in Great Britain as an "0845" number, which by itself comes with a connection fee of 11.24p (around $0.18 U.S.) to connect and then a similar amount per minute, leading to some fairly hefty connection fees to call and find why rates have suddenly doubled. Additionally, since a 0845 number is a "profit sharing" number, First Utility will reportedly get some of that money themselves, essentially making money off their astronomical hold times.

But eventually, customer got through and discovered that the issue that was driving prices up was based on a small mistake: they had set the direct debit amount for the average household's energy expense, not the amount actually used for a small flat, or apartment, leading to significantly larger than expected billing. If First Utility has been doing this to other small apartment-dwellers, then they may well have an idea why their customer service lines are jammed up tight. First Utility, for its part, responded that they have "acted accordingly" to their sudden uptick in new customers and are hiring more agents to help reduce the huge hold times, upping their total numbers fully 60 percent.

It's clear that something needed to be done, and hopefully the influx of new agents will settle the problem without further incident. But First Utility's issues underscore the need for quality customer service--even instituting a callback program or the like that would have allowed customers to receive a call from the company at a pre-approved time would have been a major help--and the risks inherent in falling down on that particular job. Being prepared for a big influx of new customers costs money, money no business wants to spend unnecessarily, but balanced against potential lost profit becomes clearly necessary. Customer service, the business of keeping customers, should be first on every business' mind.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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