Last week, a damning report confirmed what we have been angry about for years – that the nation’s domestic energy supply is a bit of a farce.
Despite endless edicts from energy regulator Ofgem, customers face a gauntlet of billing errors, retained credit and, seemingly, a blatant dismissal of suppliers’ obligations, compounded by a race to the bottom of service for them.
Support and information organisation Citizens Advice is now warning of a huge chasm between the best and worst energy suppliers as the lowest fail to provide a single accurate bill for more than 10 per cent of customers.
These errors mean people are often charged incorrectly, straining their finances and making it difficult to budget at a time when many already face financial uncertainty due to the pandemic. For people facing debt or unemployment, it can be particularly stressful and add to money worries, the organisation warns.
Dame Clare Moriarty, the chief executive, says: “Providing an accurate energy bill is the most basic aspect of customer service that a supplier can offer and yet many are failing.
“All companies have a responsibility to deliver the best-possible service to their customers and it’s disappointing to see such a wide chasm between those who are taking this seriously and those who are not.
“When customers with billing errors are unable to contact their supplier for help, it can cause immense stress. These problems are even worse for those who are already worried about money. It’s vital that suppliers fix these issues and provide support for those most at risk of debt.”
Those with the poorest track record for billing are also the worst for customer service. While the best suppliers – named by Citizens Advice as Igloo, Outfox The Market, M&S Energy, E, and Octopus (which also supplies M&S Energy) – manage to respond to 86 per cent of customers’ emails within two working days, the worst only manage 35 per cent.
Citizens Advice names those as Utilita, Ecotricity, Symbio, People’s Energy and Orbit – based on its star rating of domestic suppliers’ customer service between January and March.
But with the looming prospect of working from home for another winter and a far greater demand on domestic gas and electricity, customers have the same key weapons in their arsenal to beat the bills.
Those who haven’t switched supplier in the past 12 months are likely to be on a default or standard tariff, which MoneySuperMarket estimates is costing each household an extra £273 a year.
As cheap deals change regularly, consumer group Which? calculates that changing supplier every 12 months provides the most consistent savings compared with never switching or switching every three or six months.
Figures over the past two years suggest a reasonable, if not perfect, correlation between oil prices and domestic energy supply costs and Which? also suggests searching for a new deal when oil prices are falling.
Paying by direct debit may also help balance the books for more than seven million households that still don’t. Most suppliers offer a discount for direct debit payments. Ofgem proposes suppliers automatically repay direct debit customers who are more than 5 per cent in credit.
It estimates suppliers hold more than £1.4bn in overpayments that are notoriously difficult to have refunded.
MoneySuperMarket estimates that paperless or online tariffs offer another £40-£45 in savings each year compared with those sending out paper bills.
The comparison site also urges customers to submit meter readings every month and to get a smart meter in a bid to fight back against the scourge of inaccurate billing.
Although smart meters can’t save you money in isolation, the live data they provide customers can help change behaviour and cut costs. Once installed, they send readings to the supplier every day removing the need for meter readings and estimated bills.
The regulator has already had to launch an investigation into at least one supplier for its failures.
All suppliers were obliged to offer smart meters by the end of this month but that has been extended six months.