Will business rise to the recession challenge?


A few weeks ago I suggested that the private sector might adopt one of two strategies to deal with the recession. Many will rise to the challenge by living with smaller margins and trying even harder to keep their customers happy. Others, especially those with an effective monopoly, will be tempted to squeeze the customers until the pips squeak.

Sadly, I have so far seen more obvious evidence of the latter than the former. There was my experience of Virgin Trains charging three times the cost of my advance ticket because I got a train half an hour earlier than the one I had booked. The first estimates the RSA has just been given for a big building job from contractors (who must surely be desperate for work) are clearly exorbitant - mind you, the Society has such a long record of being ripped off I once concluded that every tradesman in central London must have a special RSA rate!

Then this week I have entered the swirling vortex of despair that is Scottish Power customer services. I won’t go into the detail of my problem, suffice to say it involved four occasions on which someone had to spend the whole day sitting in a freezing cold flat waiting for Scottish Power to fail to turn up to reconnect the supply.  The bit of SP’s call centre that I needed to speak to is permanently engaged and everyone I spoke to from other parts of the call centre met my suggestion that they help with the shocked and self righteous determination of a Rabbi refusing a cocktail sausage.

The final indignity was when I managed to locate the bit of SP’s website for customers to e-mail complaints only to be told that my detailed and carefully drafted complaint had ‘timed out’ and I would have to start again. If a public sector organisation had offered this combination of incompetence and insouciance I would have been on to my MP.

In despair I sought help from a third party. But, first, it turns out that OFGEM no longer deals with individual customer complaints. Then the nice but rather embarrassed man at the Energy Ombudsman told me that they couldn’t intervene until the customer had completed an eight week complaint acceleration process with the power company and then it would take a minimum of eight weeks before the Ombudsman investigator would complete their own process of inquiry. The answer that came when I suggested that a sixteen week process might be designed expressly to deter any but the obsessed or deranged was a blast from the past: ‘you might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’.

These are terribly tough times for business, many will go to the wall through little fault of their own. But companies that still have a market need to rise to the challenge of providing even better quality and value. Those who choose another route and try to pass all their pain down to the customer deserve to be exposed.

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