The British energy firm Npower has made a formal apology in writing to its 3.4 million gas and electricity customers after experiencing ‘problems’ with its utility billing system, according to a report by BBC News.
Npower reacted to the investigation by promising to clean up its act with tackling numerous problems over account set-ups, direct debit payments for bills and the billing system itself.
As the furore over austerity cutbacks for ordinary working people as well as the unemployed continues unabated, Npower as well as other major players in the United Kingdom’s utilities sector have been accused of profiteering. Many of the companies have hiked bills by as much as 15%, claiming that meeting new green energy laws and the rising price of wholesale gas have forced them to do so. Yet many energy customers have seen a decline in living standards and earned income, making higher bills a bigger strain on living expenses. People on low incomes have been forced to avoid using their gas and electricity, and it has been reported that last winter alone, up to 31,000 elderly and disabled people died due to lack of warmth.
The government have threatened to intervene to cap the rises and to force energy companies to automatically recommend the cheapest tariff to new and existing customers.
Npower have promised to make a donation of £1 million to a charity supporting vulnerable customers, as it tries to weather the growing public criticism of corporate ineptitude and perceived greed by energy company shareholders and bosses. The donation is being made to the company’s own Health Through Warmth Scheme Crisis Fund. The fund supports vulnerable homeowners with cold-related illnesses such as arthritis and pneumonia who cannot afford to pay for their home’s heating repairs and installations.
Npower has increased the average dual fuel bill for its customers by 10.4 % earlier this month, a move that has been derided by consumer groups protesting against unaffordable bills, while inefficiencies with its billing system have seen customer complaints soar. The company has received and recorded 202 complaints about its services per 100,000 customers for the period of April-June 2013, based on a recent figure reported by watchdog Consumer Futures. Its rate of complaints was the highest among the ‘Big Six‘ energy outfits, with the nearest runner-up, EDF (Electricite de France) only receiving 75 complaints per 100,000 subscribers. The company with the lowest complaint rate was SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy) with just 38 per 100,000. Most of Npower’s complaints were due to complications with the new billing system the company had introduced to manage its customers’ accounts.
“In recent months, we have let many of our domestic customers down and I wanted to write to each of them personally to say sorry,” said Npower’s chief executive, Paul Massara.
“We have been in discussions with [regulator] Ofgem and are working on this as our top priority. Although we’ve made good progress fixing many of the underlying issues, we still have a long way to go, and our customers deserve to get the best possible service.“
Energy regulator Ofgem has responded to Npower’s issue by welcoming the utility company’s move to address the billing problem, having previously raised concerns over its performance and handling of customers’ billing and service issues. Spokesperson Sarah Harrison said “Many Npower customers will have noticed a serious deterioration in service levels over the last year,“
“We are pleased to see Npower’s leadership team focusing on this issue, acknowledging the scale of the problem and sharing with customers its action plan to put things right.“
It is not known when Npower are expected to fix the faults in their billing system although development and testing work is on-going. EDF Energy is also under the spotlight by Ofgem over its handling processes for customer complaints, and will have to answer to an extended investigation by the regulator.
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