Monday, 26 January 2009

Cancelling Sky

The story so far...Sky decides to charge £5 a month for its previously free base broadband. It's a very slow, capped service, so we call Sky and ask for a MAC. The customer services operator decides to cancel the broadband instead. When asked to transfer the call to a manager he hangs up. Now we'll have to wait until Sky remove their service before any new provider can get onto our line. Under regulator OFCOM's rules Sky must provide a MAC to all customers who ask.

After a brief discussion about this fiasco my partner decides dealing with Sky's off-shore call centre is a hassle she can live without, so decides to cancel her entire subscription.

I telephone and ask about the status of the broadband.

'Cancelled' is Barry's reply. This time I'm speaking to a UK based customer services operator. 'Can you provide a MAC?'
'Unfortunately no, not if the cancellation process has started'.
In that case can you cancel our entire contract.
'I'll have to transfer your call to another department'.

I've researched this scenario and I know I'll be put through to 'customer retentions'. It's their job to dissuade customers from leaving. Call handlers have set options they can offer, including upgraded packages and credits. We plan to cancel whatever they offer, but I'm interested to see what Sky think their mistake - a breach of the OFCOM rules - is worth.

Laura says she'll see what she can do to help. She announces that she can order a MAC and we'll have it in 72 hours, she gives me a case reference. She apologises for the errors made yesterday and says my call appears to have been handled by an 'outsourced' agent. She'll report this because, yes, it is a breach of the Ofcom code. Its an isolated incident, all staff know the procedure.

'Er, except Barry doesn't. I just spoke to him and he said nothing could be done to rectify the error. But you've just done it.'
'I'm sorry about that, but we'd like to make amends to you. I see you have the standard box and family pack.'

In December Sky was offering new customers a free Sky+ box, free installation and £50 in M&S vouchers to join. So I calculate it costs Sky almost £200 to win a new subscriber.

Laura continued 'How about Sky+?'

Sky also offers free or reduced cost Sky+ boxes to people who threaten to leave. Accepting their offer usually ties you into a new 12 month minimum term contract.

'We can't get Sky+ here, we share a dish.'
'Oh. Do you have a BT telephone line?'

I've also read Sky is giving free line rental worth £10 a month to some customers who agree to switch their phone service to Sky.

'We don't want to buy any more services from Sky after our experience with your call centre yesterday and today I'm afraid.'
'Well to make amends I can credit your account with £10.'
'Did you say £10?'

Sky has broken OFCOM's rules. Their apology is worth a tenner.

'We'd like to cancel please.'
'I might be able to do a bit better, what would you like?'
'You'll have to do a lot better than £10. Six months free subscription might make amends.'
'I can't do that, but I can credit your account £30.'
'In which case will you cancel our subscription please.'

By now I've been on the phone to Sky trying to cancel for 33 minutes. By the time Laura has verified all this again with my partner (the account holder) we've spent 44 minutes on the phone to Sky. At last its over. We've given 30 days notice. Bye Bye Sky. Hooray no more irritating calls to off-shore call centres and poorly trained staff who don't know what they're talking about.

When I posted last week about Sky remotely reprogramming our set-top box to switch off, cancelling Sky didn't even occur to us. But after a 23% price increase, 40 minutes to a call centre in India and 2 terminated calls we just couldn't take any more. Funny thing is we used to pay £21.50 a month to be treated like this.

Let's hope that MAC comes through...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Price Rises Cost Customer Loyalty

Sky TV - have they picked the wrong time to test customer loyalty?

As the news about the economy gets worse, companies are struggling to maintain customer spending. Some of the big boys act as though they hope to keep our business how ever much they test our loyalty.

Three examples of companies testing our loyalty this week.

They all lost.

British Airways has cancelled my partner's Silver Executive Club membership. For the first time since 2002 she can no longer use the BA lounge during her weekly business flights. Last year she switched to flying BMI during the terminal 5 fiasco when many domestic BA flights were cancelled, so she didn't earn sufficient loyalty points. BA has saved the cost of providing free coffee and newspapers while she waits to board, but lost her loyalty and their share of an annual four figure sum spent on business travel because now she'll prefer to fly BMI - where she can use the Silver lounge.

Norwich Union upped our annual home insurance quotes by a few more pounds this month and lost both our polices. My quote from Churchill is over £120 less, my partner's £80 lower. We're £200 better off, Norwich Union has lost £550 worth of business because it made the mistake of believing we'd keep stumping up for their annual price hikes. When my partner called to cancel NU immediately offered a 15% reduction. If they could do that when the business was heading out the door why didn't they hold the price increase when they quoted - which may have saved a customer?

Sky Television. Just over a year ago Sky feared its customers might jump to a rival TV and Broadband Phone package so it decided to give existing customers their basic broadband package free. This year it has decided to start charging £5 a month. Customers can avoid the price increase if they opt to take Sky Talk. We don't want to buy phone calls from sky - or pay to use 1471. To get this and other BT type services free we need to switch to Sky telephone line rental. Dealing with Sky is troublesome enough, without giving them more of our money.

So we decide to switch my partner's Sky basic broadband to o2. It's faster, gives unlimited downloads, free wireless router, no connection fee, free UK based customer service and its only £2.34 a month more than Sky's new charge (£7.34 to O2 customers). Even better sign up via a cashback site like Topcashback and you get paid £25 to buy which is effectively 3 months free.

Phoning Sky for a MAC - the code you need to transfer the line from one broadband supplier to another is less easy. Sky seems to have moved some of its call handling off-shore. After 22 minutes the call is put through to an officious customer services representative who decides to cancel the broadband rather than issue a MAC. When asked why he has done this he becomes defensive, and then quite hostile. When I ask him to transfer my call he terminates it. Again we call back and then after 20 more minutes on hold the call is terminated.

My partner and I have a quick chat about how much we hate phoning Sky. Then we hit on an idea. What if we only ever have to phone Sky once more? Let's cancel the subscription. How good would that feel? This would not have crossed our mind if Sky hadn't decided to start charging £60 a year (12 x £5) for its slow, rubbish broadband, had spent some more money training its staff and decided not to outsource its call centre. Sky is going to discover the true cost of these three cost-cutting actions - because they're about to lose £258 of existing annual subscriptions and £60 of future broadband fees.

Norwich Union loss = £550
Sky loss = £318.

Savings to annual budget.
Sky £318 (less o2 broadband £63.56 after cashback) = £254.44
Norwich Union £550 (less Churchill policies £335) = £215.00

Total saving = £469.44

Of course wherever there are losers there are winners. BMI for its punctuality, o2 Broadband for its UK call centres, uncapped service and customer discount and Churchill Insurance for its introductory discounts and market leading rates.

When companies test our loyalty make sure to add up the real cost.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

E.ON - Power Crazy

E.ON - Power Crazy

I'm staying with my partner. She lives in one of 4 flats converted from former offices. This morning 2 letters arrived addressed to 'the occupier' at Number 2. No flat number, no name. The E.ON logo on both envelopes.

Last time I was here a representative from E.ON turned up to disconnect the electricity. E.ON are not the suppliers and had no authority to enter so I turned them away. Intrigued to discover the latest E.ON error I opened both envelopes. The first letter reads:

'We are sorry you are leaving us - your account is £221.48 in credit'

The next letter is less pleasant:

'We have estimated your reading - please pay £8,105.87.'

I thought I better telephone E.ON before the bailiffs arrived.

E.ON are less than friendly. I eliminated the first line of customer dis-service by phoning their complaints number. I explain they are writing to and billing 'nobody' at No.2 as the building is divided into 4 flats each with its own separate number.

I thought E.ON might be grateful for my call, pointing out their mistake. But I'm in for a surprise, as I expect you know if you're an E.ON customer.

After 20 minutes I manage to get E.ON to reveal that they have visited the property again in December and on 6th January to cut off the electricity. On 6th January E.ON finally discovered the meter they were billing against was no longer installed at the property.

In fact E.ON have now discovered the meter they have been issuing huge bills against since at least 2005 (and even claim to have taken a reading from on 29th November 2005!) was removed from the property when it was converted into flats way back in 2001 - 8 years ago.

"So if you knew on the 6th January that the meter no longer existed, and that you aren't the energy supplier to the property, why have issued a bill for over £8,000 on the 10th of January?

'That's just systems generated'

"Do you have any idea how distressing it is, having E.ON call at the door threatening to disconnect the electricity, or to receive letters claiming you owe £8,000?"

'We had to find out about the supply'

"Your bill arrived today - the 21st of January - you had plenty of opportunity to write and admit your mistake, cancel the bills, and apologise for your intimidating behaviour."

'We don't write those sorts of letters.'

"What about the account that is in credit. Do you plan to refund that?"

'I can't discuss it, you aren't the account holder'

"Don't hide behind Data Protection. As you've admitted no one is the account holder."


"Who could you discuss the account with? There's no one who could possibly telephone who you can discuss it with. You don't even have a meter at the property. You couldn't even discuss the billing with Gordon Brown if he called!'

This wouldn't be fun if E.ON really had forced entry, cut off the power, or sent in the bailiffs.
E.ON is power crazy.

"E.ON is a strictly regulated company, your behaviour has been so serious that I'm going to report your failure to the regulator. You should have been notified by the National Grid when they removed the meter in 2001, but you have been harassing law abiding residents for 8 years without good reason."

'I'll put your call through to my manager'.

After around 5 minutes on hold a manager comes on the line. I explain again that E.ON has had plenty of opportunity to correct its mistake - which it has known about since at least 6th January. I have gone out of my way to contact them today, but they have been unhelpful, rude and obstructive. Their errors have caused distress, cost money and time and we require compensation. I insist the manager reviews the way my first telephone call has been handled this morning and calls me back to explain whether this is an acceptable standard of service. She says she will. I also explain I will write about and publish an account of my experience with E.ON today.

The manager is about to end the call when I ask 'would you like my contact details?'

You'll be surprised to learn I haven't heard back from E.ON. They are possibly too busy over-billing and harassing other innocent non-customers. In 2005 UK customers made 11,780 complaints to Energywatch about E.ON's billing mistakes, a huge number. Complaints are falling now but in 2007 still numbered 1,741 - almost 5 complaints for every single day of the year. That's not 5 complaints to E.ON, that's 5 complaints which E.ON has failed to resolve to the customer's satisfaction and were escalated to the energy regulator.

Let's see what E.ON has to say when they investigate further. Watch this space...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Sky TV Turns Subscribers Green

Sky TV controls it's subscribers remotely

I'm reading a book called 'Nudge' at the moment, which describes how citizens can be 'nudged' rather than instructed or legislated over to make the right choices and actions.

Coincidentally I simultaneously encountered the theory in action this week. The Sky TV set-top box keeps turning itself off. It's annoying, it's an older box and it takes a while to reboot and pick up the listings and when it's default position is 'off' it doesn't send a signal to the second room it's linked to.

My partner thinks the Sky box may be broken. I google 'Sky box keeps switching off' and discover we are not alone in our problem.

According to numerous posts all over various forums on the web (including digitalspy) every one's Sky box has developed a mind of its own.

Sky, it seems, has automatically downloaded a software update onto its subscribers' equipment to turn off their receivers when not in use in a bid to save electricity and boost the company's green credentials. Customers are puzzled because they haven't been told.

Subscribers can over-ride the 'auto-standby' feature by going into the settings menu and selecting option 5 - as we've now done.

There is much debate online about how much electricity Sky's action is really saving and how green it really makes Sky TV.

Some say the box on standby consumers 0.1 amps of electricity per hour. Multiply by 9m subscribers and you save enough electricity to power 57,000 homes.

Others moan that Sky should have given them the option to select the auto-off option. Green advocates ask how many subscribers would have enabled such a feature.

This is what the Nudge book is all about. Should our boxes be automatically turned off without our co-operation - in a Big Brother kind of way - or should we be nudged into action in a more self selecting way? Perhaps if we'd been 'nudged' into the benefit we would have complied, rather than simply disabling the annoying feature once we'd worked it out.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Hot UK Deals tip damages Viking Direct

The £399 Medion 13.1 MD96698 Notebook - Viking Direct cleared at £229

Christmas Day set a new record for online shopping and I have to admit I was among those buying stuff, or at least attempting to.

Recently I've been browsing There, eagle eyed users post the best of the sales bargains, saving a lot of browsing. On Christmas morning I spotted a user's post for a clearance laptop from online office suppliers Viking Direct.

AT just £229 It looked like a steal for the spec. I wasn't the only one who thought so, the forum was alive with excitement. Users could barely contain themselves as they discovered all manner of ways to add to the deal - buying via cashback site Quidco, creating a new account with Viking Direct and so qualifying for a free Christmas hamper, or even adding a free watch. There was much debate about whether to create a business or personal account - and which users would be most likely to secure this clearance special.

I was caught up in this buying frenzy, but it was was 16.37 before I got around to finally completing my order. By that time I received an email saying my request was on 'back order'. I guessed that this was while Viking Direct reconciled their stock with the large number of orders they had undoubtedly received and that perhaps I'd be lucky, perhaps not. By this stage the HotUKdeals forum was jumping with anticipation about how Viking Direct would deal with the clamour.

Viking Direct was understandably shut so I had to wait until Monday 29th December to phone their customer service centre. My call was answered after 2 rings and a helpful operator explained the laptops had all been sold; 'someone posted the deal on some kind of forum', so she would cancel my back order as no more would be available. Oh well some you win, some you lose.

Unfortunately for Viking Direct their special offer didn't quite go according to plan and over the last few days their company's reputation has taken quite a hammering on Some of the bargain hunters who were advised their order had been successful and whose accounts were debited were then advised the laptop was sold out. Others received their free gifts, but not the laptop they were so anxious for. Yet more had cashback credited to their Quidco accounts but unfulfilled orders.

A huge mess for Viking Direct and a lot of unhappy customers - many who were buying from them for the first time. I would have been cross if they had taken my cash, but they didn't, nor did I apply for any of the free offers.

But what happened next is surprising, and has taken aback many of the users at The General Manager of Viking Direct, Richard Carvell has personally intervened on the forum to apologise to customers and explain what went wrong with the deal. He has also sent series of personal emails to all customers, including me.

Apparently Viking Direct posted the clearance on their site a few days before Christmas. They had 200 in stock. When the rush began these quickly sold out. Unfortunately for Viking they use a computerised system which fulfilled the personal orders over the business customers and carried on debiting accounts when the stock had all been dispatched. Normally this glitch would have been prevented, but the company had only a skeleton staff during the holidays.

Viking Direct's Richard Carvell has provided a full explanation, apologised on the forum and by email, ensured that all customers who've had money taken, but received no laptop receive a refund plus £20. They've set up a special hotline and telephoned customers to explain what is happening. He's even promised to see if he can source an alternative deal to satisfy disappointed buyers. Amazingly these Herculean efforts don't seem enough to satisfy some posters who threaten the small claims court and other nonsense.

I've never shopped with Viking Direct before, but I'm convinced they're doing their utmost to learn from their genuine mistake and will be doing their best to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Extended Warranty Mistake - Domestic and General

Domestic and General's Extended Warranty cost twice the price of the washer dryer

To start the year a couple of stories from last year... I hope they encourage you to seek the service you deserve during 2009. Both these stories are about extended warranties. They both have a happy outcome.

Just before Christmas a colleague was having considerable difficulty getting the manufacturer of her Worcester Bosch boiler to source replacement parts covered under warranty. Her family had no heating or hot water for several days. I suggested she email the CEO. She did, and the next day the company swung into action with full force - the regional manager ensured a rapid fix and she was still receiving calls at 11pm that night to check she was happy. It's disappointing when the only way to get service is to complain direct to the top, but it does seem to be increasingly true.

The second complaint took a bit more effort. A close friend was embarrassed to discover a company called Dom & Gen had been helping themselves to money out of her bank account. Upon looking more closely she discovered this had been happening periodically since 2001. Adding up all the payments it came to just shy of £700. She had no idea what the payments were for, but thought they might be life insurance premiums linked to an endowment policy cancelled earlier that year.

I tend to Google everything these days and came up with Britain's largest supplier of extended warranties. So what could she have taken out an extended warranty on? Phoning Domestic and General was of little help. She has moved 4 times in 8 years and there was no policy listed against her current address or any of the previous couple. The customer service agent was not only unhelpful, but obstructive and refused to escalate our call that Saturday afternoon, hiding behind the 'Data Protection Act'.

Of course I took notes of the time of the call, the operator's name, and the duty manager (who he wouldn't let me speak to). Then I phoned again and got someone more helpful.

Through careful questioning I discovered the payments were for an extended warranty on a Zanussi washer dryer purchased in June 2000. At first the payments were taken at twice yearly intervals, then quarterly and now monthly. They added up to £697.68. These sporadic payments were due to continue until July 2009. To request any refund I must phone Customer Accounts - who of course don't work weekends.

The appliance cost around £350 - half the cost of the warranty payments collected by Domestic and General. They claimed to have sent renewal letters - but to a property she had sold in December 2000. My friend gave the appliance away in 2001 when she moved to a new property which already had a washer dryer installed. So she was paying for a very expensive breakdown policy which she could never claim against.

My friend felt so stupid for not noticing the debits from her bank account, or failing to to act earlier that she also felt awkward about complaining. After asking a few questions I persuaded her otherwise. She had arranged with the Post Office to have her mail forwarded for 6 months after moving in December 2000 - which should have caught any renewal notices from Domestic and General. Also she is fastidious about filing paperwork, so after a going through a couple of boxes came up with the errant policy documents and a direct debit agreement. The policy appeared to automatically renew and the payments escalate as the appliance aged.

On the Monday morning I telephoned Domestic and General to make a formal complaint about the first customer service operator. I heard nothing back, so wrote to the Managing Director enclosing a letter of complaint detailing all my phone calls and copies of the paperwork, and mentioning the Financial Ombudsman Service. I noted that the policy had a continuous authority until it was either cancelled or expired in 2009, which I felt was unreasonable. The policy called for a new letter every time the payment schedule changed and this condition had not been fulfilled.

Less than 2 weeks later Domestic and General wrote to refund the entire £697.68 'as a gesture of goodwill' adding 'this is being made without any admission of liability'.

Domestic and General went on to write 'after looking at the paperwork you have provided we have also noted that when you accepted our offer of breakdown protection for this appliance you had also purchased protection with Domestic Insurance Services. This is a separate company to Domestic and General and so there was duplication of cover on your appliance for the initial period of protection. We will also be issuing a refund for this period.'

In fact the policy documents my friend had filed away were two separate policies. One sold by House of Fraser at point of purchase and then a second sold via post from Zanussi when returning the guarantee card. Even I missed the difference between a policy headed Domestic Insurance Services and another letter headed Domestic and General Group PLC.

The law doesn't allow for two insurance policies to be in force and so the first policy takes precedence. Domestic and General were ineligible to sell their policy and therefore all the subsequent automatic renewals were void too. My friend is £697.68 better off - although of course they shouldn't have taken the money from her in the first place, so it is rightfully retunred.

Keep your paperwork, keep notes and if you have a legitimate complaint about the service you receive don't hesitate to make it. As consumers we're well protected by legislation and regulation. Regulated companies will usually always honour their obligations - eventually.