I suppose the reason why companies with millions of customers are so often so contemptuous of them is that if you have millions of anything, you attach only a low value to that thing. Nevertheless, it puzzles me that so few of these companies are able to rise above contempt. If a utility company stopped treating its customers like lambs for slaughter, surely it would gain market share?
Last week, I almost brought Michael in the British Gas call-centre to tears. I am not proud of this. I am sure he is a nice person. But the script he was working from was so exasperating that I found it very difficult to stay polite. How many times should one have to ask, "What are you charging me?" before getting an answer? Am I a grumpy old man? Or is British Gas a temple of contempt?
Some time last year, on the advice of a friend who seemed to have spent hours researching energy costs, I switched my electricity and gas to British Gas. I completed the online questionnaire diligently, looking up previous bills to give an accurate estimate of my usage. The bills came in. The direct debits went out. The Blair household was warm.
Then, two weeks ago, British Gas wrote to advise that my monthly payments would be increased by 60 per cent. Slightly alarmed, I read the meters myself and discovered that the estimated readings were virtually spot on. I spent about three minutes trying to validate the arithmetic behind the hike. Then the phone rang and that was the last attention I gave it. The Blair family will not starve. I would take some action in due course if a significant credit balance built up with British Gas.
By the time Michael rang, I had forgotten all about it. "Mr Blair, your one-year deal is coming to an end. I'm calling to give you a new deal." I have to confess I had forgotten that I was on a one-year deal, if I had ever realised it.
"But first, let's have a look at your direct debit." When I said I did not want to discuss the direct debit with him, he was flabbergasted. "But, Mr Blair, it's gone up so much. Surely you want to reduce it?"
The penny dropped. My direct debit had been increased precisely to enable Michael to curry favour by reducing it ahead of signing me up for another year. I have to say, that if cynicism is your weapon of choice, it was a tactic of genius. I almost felt like the bad guy as I explained to Michael for the third time that I had absolutely no interest in reducing my direct debit. "Michael, you're going to have all this money in the end. If you get it a few months early, I'm really not bothered. Now, what are you charging me for the renewal?"
I wouldn't have sacked British Gas over the direct debit malarkey. But when I asked for my prices, it went from bad to worse. The answer was "4 per cent off our standard rates". Was it so unreasonable of me to ask what the standard rates are? Apparently so. Get this: Michael rang me to get me to renew my energy contract, having to hand my bills, my standing order, my phone number, my usage, my miserable discount. But he did not have my prices.
Now I can understand that Michael's boss's boss's boss - the one who wrote the script - might hope to renew customers without telling them what they're paying per unit of energy. But to count on not telling them - to be simply unprepared for such a question - well that is a world in which ordinary values have been subverted.
Evidently British Gas gets away with it. If all the Michaels made all the customers as cross as me, that script would never have seen the light of day. But that doesn't relieve British Gas and its parent
Eventually, after breaking off the conversation and coming back again, Michael was able to give me my prices. Ten minutes after the end of the call, I determined that 4 per cent off these prices was not exactly a steal and I swapped suppliers. I hope the new guys have a better script writer than British Gas.
Phil Bentley, British Gas managing director! Can you not appreciate how the subversion of decent values corrodes your credentials? Is there really no alternative?
MORE FROM ALISTAIR BLAIR...
Alistair Blair writes the No Free Lunch column which you can read on his homepage. He is a past winner of the Business Writer of the Year Award, has worked in investment banking and fund management. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org