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First Utility struggles with customer service

Emma Lunn
by Lovemoney Staff Emma Lunn on 23 November 2012  |  Comments 20 comments

Cheap products are great but if companies can't cope with the increased demand then they'll lose customers as quickly as they acquire them.

First Utility struggles with customer service

Energy firm First Utility has some of the best energy deals around, but is being badly let down by its customer service with phone calls, emails and Tweets going unanswered.

It looks to be the latest in a long line of companies running marketing campaigns the rest of the business can’t keep up with.

So, is it ever worth getting a cheap product if you have to suffer shocking customer service at the same time?

Switching

I’m in the process of switching gas and electricity suppliers from British Gas to First Utility. Obviously the plan is to save money.

Having searched online, I estimated my energy bill would be £666 a year with First Utility, £100 or so cheaper than British Gas, my current supplier.

So I was shocked when a few weeks into the switching process I received an email from First Utility informing me my direct debits would be twice what I currently pay with British Gas. At £115 a month, a year’s consumption would come to £1,380.

So I decided to call First Utility to discuss things. How hard could that be?

Overstretched and under-staffed

Very hard, it turns out. Put simply, First Utility appears to offer great energy deals but can’t cope with the subsequent influx of customers. On my first attempt to call customer services I gave up after 25 minutes on hold – after all, I have work to do. My second attempt lasted 30 minutes without speaking to anyone. I sent First Utility an email via its online contact form outlining my problems.

Meanwhile First Utility’s website claimed it was experiencing “unprecedented levels of demand”, therefore its average response time was currently “five minutes for calls and six days for emails.” Five minutes? Yes, and the rest.

Social media

So I took to Twitter to have a moan and see if other customers were having the same problems. It turns out they were: the Twitter handle @First_UtilityCS was coming under attack from numerous disgruntled customers, mostly complaining their calls were going unanswered.

“@First_UtilityCS Is there any chance my phone call being answered today? Been trying since 09:30 and when I did get through you cut me off,” tweeted Veniese on 12th November at 16.49.

The same day greenbhoy1 tweeted: “@First_UtilityCS I've DM'd you, tweeted you, called you, emailed you, but still no action, what more can I do?”

A week later, things appear to be no better. On Monday emanc73 tweeted: “@First_UtilityCS Jesus your service just keeps gets worse. Don't let me distract you from whatever your cs [customer service] department does day in day out.”

The cost of calling

I eventually got through the second day I tried but after a good 30 minutes on hold – yet First Utility are still claiming customers are waiting an average of just five minutes.

The fact that First Utility uses an 0845 number for “customer service” just adds insult to injury. On Virgin Media this costs 11.24p as a connection fee and then 11.24p a minute.

So in total I spent about £9 calling the company – and because 0845 numbers are “profit sharing,” First Utility will see some of this money. So it’s making a profit out of its terrible call answering times. Hardly sounds fair, does it?

Good product, terrible customer service

First Utility isn’t the first firm to become victim of its own success. Most famously, in 2006 TalkTalk launched a promotion offering free broadband. The promotion soon attracted criticism when demand outstripped supply and the company couldn’t cope with the consumer response.

Santander is another example. The bank has had some great products over the last few years, but you only have to look at the comments from Lovemoney readers to see how frequently it is let down by its customer service.

Amazon is guilty of some customer service sins too. Ignoring the issue of its UK tax payments, it can be a cheap website to buy things from. However, it uses delivery company Yodel, which has been heavily criticised for its poor practices and dire customer service. Most Amazon customers would probably be happy to pay more and receive their parcel on time.

When I eventually got through to First Utility, it claimed it had set my direct debit based on the “average” household energy consumption, not the expected consumption for my small flat.

It subsequently lowered my direct debit to a more reasonable level. But if it’s set many new customers’ payments twice as high as they should be, then no wonder it’s getting inundated with phone calls.

Time will tell if switching energy supplier turns out to be worthwhile but the early indications aren’t good. Would I be better off paying more to a firm that values its customers?

First Utility responded to our query about rising Twitter traffic with the following comment:

" Yes, First Utility has seen an increase in the amount of twitter traffic involving it over the last few months. This is to be expected and directly proportional to the increase in customer numbers that it has experienced – First Utility now has more than 120,000 customers. We believe that customers find Twitter a convenient channel, since they can comment on First Utility and contact us while on the move.

“We have acted accordingly and are actively recruiting more customer service agents to join the contact centre and respond to Twitter traffic – this year, we have increased staff numbers 60% and this is set to continue.

“First Utility takes this communication channel very seriously and we take care to contact all of those that tweet us. Resolution of queries always take place offline and on a one-to-one basis, so as to avoid dealing with the often confidential details of their queries.”

More on utilities:

What can you do about rising energy prices?

The UK’s worst mobile phone provider

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Comments (20)

  • meldrewlives
    Love rating 0
    meldrewlives said

    Agreed their customer service is ABYSMAL and has been for years. Until they changed their Terms & Conditions those lapses caused them to pay penalties - hence the change!

    But why are you having a fixed direct debit problem - the whole point of their offerings is you send them the ACTUAL useage readings at month end and get billed for what you use.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • Coastguardscottage
    Love rating 4
    Coastguardscottage said

    You should have gone to Saynoto0870 website, and found the landline number instead... 01926 328810 is a geographical delivery number for 0845 215 5000. Perhaps that makes it more affordable to call them, and they will not get a share if you call this.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • GaryDean
    Love rating 76
    GaryDean said

    Agreed Andy, I use SAYNO too. Surprised Virgin charge you. In our package which is the basic these numbers are now free??

    Ultimately the utility companies are fleecing customers one way or another. If you change providers they merely catch you from a different direction. We're all changing to one another has just changed from. It appears doing so merely lets off a bit of steam preventing the pot from exploding. The REAL problem is we have devolved into a system where greed rules supreme. Those running these various corps have pushed the barriers of moral decency so far back with their plotting & scheming, devising ever more insidious ways to fleece us, that nothing short of a revolution can change things. And I doubt ultimately that it would as the leopards merely change spots & become even more emboldened in their perfidy as we saw in the former communist bloc.

    It would be nice to see a few courageous politicians band together to buck the tide & put some of these people in their place.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • GaryDean
    Love rating 76
    GaryDean said

    And, I might add, do precisely what they were elected to do........act in the interest of their constituents rather than themselves & those who hold the purse strings.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • angussb
    Love rating 1
    angussb said

    Every energy provider is required to provide a quotation before you change, based upon your previous usage (actual annual uase based on figures provided on statements by previous suppliers) or based upon a standard formula based upon number of adults, children, bedrooms.

    To set a budget level at double to quotation is, as far as I can see, sharp practice. After all, either they are using actual usage, in which case they know that doubling the estimate is unreasonable, or they are using a formula for what the average user will use, in which case the claim of setting the budget for double the estimate is nonsensical.

    They are simply looking to claim extra cash for the first year and get the interest on it, indicating that they may have cashflow issues? As a private limited company (I think?), this is not so easy to check as it would be with listed companies.

    Certainly one that I would consider a documented complaint to Ofgem.

    While price is important, a quick check with Which? would have shown that First Utility has a rating in the middle of the Big 6, who make up the remiander of the bottom 7 companies.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • sketharaman
    Love rating 8
    sketharaman said

    First Utility's reputation hasn't seemed to have improved much in the meanwhile. When we just checked using our social intelligence platform HEATMAP360, its Twitter Sentiment was 74% NEGATIVE versus 26% POSITIVE. Hope the company is conscious of the need to put off social media fires quickly before they go out of control and cause severe and irreversible loss of reputation.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • worlduser
    Love rating 4
    worlduser said

    Ever changing marketing ploys, deliberately introducing errors when signing up so unfortunates pay a premium sorting problems out! Good profit to be had there then!

    It appears to me that we are paying a premium for normal service. By that I mean good customer service with a fair billing for fair usage.

    When you think you are getting a bargain you are actually paying what used to be normal price and get an inferior service.

    Definitely not about the customer anymore (you're just a number) it's about profit.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • wisdomseeker
    Love rating 0
    wisdomseeker said

    It's not just a question of customer service, there's also an issue about whether First Utility has been mis-selling. Early this year, I switched to First Utility on the sales person's promise that I would receive a free smart meter to enable our family to monitor closely its energy use. More than six months later, there is still no sign of the smart meter and we have just been informed that they are still awaiting ratification of the product. I suspect the real reason is that it costs money to supply and to fit a smart meter and they have no wish to fund it. Should they have offered it in the first place?

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • audaciousangel
    Love rating 1
    audaciousangel said

    Why don't you just charge them administration fees. For every mistake that a company makes, I charge them £25.00 per phone call and £35.00 per email/letter. I have already had success with Sky. Use a NOTICE OF DEMAND FOR ADMINISTRATION CHARGES £70.00. Then if they ignore that use NOTICE OF FAULT AND OPPORTUNITY TO CURE. Third letter is NOTICE OF DEFAULT. Always add fees for their errors, and if you have to follow up on a letter/phone call/email, charge them. Why should YOU lose out because of incompetent service. And don't feel guilty. These energy companies are absolutely loaded and don't think about sending you nasty reminder letters when you are struggling to pay a bill.

    I would recommend anyone to get their gas/electricity with XLN Energy. My dad wants to change from First Utility, who were charging 0.57pence per day gas standing charge (equivalent to around £250 per year - greedy guzzlers) to zero with XLN Energy. He is now charging FU a daily standing charge for making him wait to see if there is a cancellation charge, and can they match the price from XLN Energy. It is business gas and electric they deal in, but they don't do any business checks as I work from home and use them for broadband.

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • yocoxy
    Love rating 152
    yocoxy said

    What is it with the female Lovemoney writers using the site for their personal rants? This should be a forum post somewhere not a financial site "article".

    Report on 25 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • Bobski
    Love rating 20
    Bobski said

    If you call them, then why not use Saynoto0870, to get a geographical 01/02/03 number to call them on????

    Report on 26 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • b_fusion
    Love rating 5
    b_fusion said

    First Utility is truly awful. We attempted to switch to them after all the promises of cheaper bills and the fact it's not one of the big six. What a mistake.

    The multitude of calls and emails we have made and sent have all gone unanswered except for automated acknowledgements (sometimes months later) if we're lucky. These were all to sort out problems caused by them.

    The first sign that something was wrong was when FU decided to set us up with a direct debit of almost £100 a month for a one-bedroom flat. Given we had spent at most £250 in one quarter with our old provider during an incredibly cold winter, this seemed just a tad high.

    The second, rather more significant, issue was that FU had switched over another property down the street from us. I kid you not. I don't even know how this is possible.

    It was us that finally figured out there was a problem when we realised that the meter serial numbers weren't matching up and the fact our old provider (and in fact our current provider) Southern Electric had not sent us a final bill. Yet, despite repeated calls to FU to get it sorted out, nothing happened. We kept having to explain the story again and again to whomever we managed to speak to. Emails were never answered, calls more often than not were unanswered after being on hold for 30 minutes and giving up.

    To cut a long story short, we stayed with Southern Electric and cancelled the switch. Southern Electric (despite being one of the big six and more expensive) has always provided us with excellent customer service. There is a lot to be said for being able to speak to someone on the phone who actually sorts out any issues.

    From start to finish, faffing around with FU took about four/five months and they only ever actually switched over our electricity, despite us signing up for dual fuel. We were officially FU customers for a grand total of about six weeks before returning with much relief to SE.

    Funnily enough, FU has yet to acknowledge that we left them at the start of August. I'm not sure they really know that we are not their customers, given they sent an automated email in response to one, but don't know which, of our complaint emails a few weeks ago.

    Through all of this, FU continued to charge us £97 a month. However, we learned (from one of their own customer service staff no less and the only useful thing they ever told us) that we could make an indemnity claim through our bank to reclaim all our money given that they had provided us with no service.

    If you have a problem like this, call your bank, ask for an indemnity claim for the direct debit and the money will be in your account within 24 hours. It is up to the provider (ie FU in this instance) to dispute the retrieval of money, which it never did. So, we didn't end up out of pocket through having to chase them directly for money which would have been a guaranteed nightmare - barring the cost of calls to their customer service line of course.

    I would say to anyone, avoid FU at all costs. Its acronym sums up its attitude to its customers!

    PS Yocoxy - Your comment is abitrary to say the least. What exactly is it that sets "female Lovemoney writers" apart from the male ones? I'm sure I've seen these kinds of articles from both genders. I would argue this article has every right to be such. If you value your time and money, FU is a company to be approached with extreme caution and all readers should be aware of this.

    Report on 26 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  1 love
  • naimike
    Love rating 1
    naimike said

    This is not a new prob with F.U. I switched to them in 2009 and although they put in a "smart" meter my bills were never correct and I had the same probs in phoning and emailing, after 9 mths I gave them notice that if they didn't improve I would leave, they ignored this so I switched to Npower, ostensibly owing F.U. £50 which I told them I would not paying owing to poor customer service and my time spent ringing and emailing, I got a phone call asking for the £50 but I stuck to my guns and didn't pay, Npower have had much better contact but I am looking around following today's price rises!

    Report on 27 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  1 love
  • oldhenry
    Love rating 343
    oldhenry said

    All this crap anout smart mters. All meters tell you what you have used. Just read the numbers and write it down, not difficult is it?

    Use OVO , they have been excellent and give you interest on any credit balances- which there always are with energy companies. They are not charities you know. It is alll part of the capitalist society thatwe voted for- remember SID?

    Report on 27 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • gbjkgnca
    Love rating 0
    gbjkgnca said

    I am in exactly the same position as Emma and the figures that they took from my bank account are the same as yours they are now wishing to charge us a £60 get out fee so I have took this case to the energy ombudsman...what a disgraceful company and I'm not shocked to read they had something to do with talk talk another con

    Report on 27 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • Basia02a
    Love rating 49
    Basia02a said

    In the Nineties and Eighties the utility companies read the meter and sent you a quarterly Bill in the post, and adjusted the direct debit if necessary. Why does this now appear impossible to do. I have switched a number of times in the past decade and the general level of service is shocking. All they have to do is send me a Bill

    National Power - used to send a bill for 3 months, and then for 7 months, but this include the 3 months which they had 'cancelled', then for 4 months, but this overlapped with the 7 month bill Now I ignore them after one of their door sellers started swearing at me on the doorstep. Complained to OFGEM and NP got in touch to say that in order to progress it, I had to phone them on a premium number!

    Scottish Power - switched to them twice. Spent 2 days on the phone to their Help desk trying to get my online Bill to print. Eventually the Help Desk gave up and confesssed he had left Scottish Power himself because he couldn't get on with the online systems. Second time, yet another new online system. I started getting messages saying my security had been breached etc. Got compensated for my wasted time

    Scottish&Southern - back to the old standard - acceptable

    Had a go with EDF as they were top of the 6 for service. One week later they were bottom after implementing a new online system. Luckily I had no urgent needs. My one email had a projected response time of 2 weeks - in fact longer - but it wasn't urgent.

    Last Month I went to OVO first time away from the big boys. They were competitive and good on the service charts. They failed to set up my Direct Debit (usually the bit they get right!) Could I phone and pay it over the phone. Failed to get through in 3 days. In response to an email they rang me and sorted out. However they asked me for my password in order to do so - haven't been asked for this for at least a decade.

    Perhaps I am just unlucky....................

    Report on 29 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • tony the otter
    Love rating 2
    tony the otter said

    Just tried to apply. Two problems. They didn't believe I had a gas supply. They didn't believe the account name on my bank account. So the application wouldn't process. Presumably their loss as well as mine.

    Report on 30 November 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • laura-anne
    Love rating 11
    laura-anne said

    0845 numbers are owned by BT and most phone companies can arrange for you to call them free, I am with Plusnet and pay a small subscription each month to call 0800, 0845 and 0870 for free. I also have a subscription on my mobile which costs 2.50 per month and gives me 300 mins per month to call the same three numbers. 0844 numbers are profit sharing please get it right. If Virgin don't provide this service may I recommend Plusnet - Oh and Midcounties Co Op for your utilities

    Report on 02 December 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • leaseholdreform
    Love rating 0
    leaseholdreform said

    I gave up ringing them as they promised to ring back but didn't-- Go through u switch no problem at all!!

    Report on 05 December 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • simc
    Love rating 0
    simc said

    I submitted my readings online...but they were not received?!...so I tried phoning .. no reply over several days...emailed but said they would take 6 days to reply...meanwhile they estimated and sent my first bill which was excessive....still no meaningful response...If I had known about the non existent service I would definitely have NOT switched to them...at 69 I do not need the hassle. !!

    simc

    Report on 06 December 2012  |  Love thisLove  0 loves

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