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Energy sector liaison panel: five key takeaways

Ombudsman Services | 29th July 2020

Energy SLP

On 16 July we held our first virtual energy sector liaison panel (SLP).

The webinar allowed member companies to listen to a business update from Ombudsman Services and learn about our planned approach to complaints related to Covid-19.

Specifically, we focused on sharing some draft decision-making principles on Covid-19 related complaints linked to affordability, guaranteed standards, engineer visits and customer service.

Relationships director Jodi Hamilton, finance director Tim Moran and ombudsman team members Jonathan Lenton, John Gallagher, David Jones and Kevin Gleave were on hand to present and answer questions.

Key discussion points included prepayment meters, best practice around debt collection practices and the Covid-19 measures agreed by the government and the energy industry in March 2020.

Representatives of dozens of energy companies took part in the session, but in case you missed it here are five key takeaways, as summarised by Jonathan Lenton, head of the ombudsman team.

These takeaway messages focus on the broad approach we will adopt when considering Covid-19 related complaints, which we are only now starting to receive.

1) We will take business disruption into account when making decisions

It was made clear during the webinar that, when considering complaints where Covid-19 is a factor, Ombudsman Services will take into account any disruption suppliers have experienced.

2) The urgency of the problem will be a factor in how we view a complaint

When considering complaints, we would expect to see evidence of a supplier taking all reasonable steps to address an urgent problem. In our view, urgent complaints relate to situations such as:

  • Customers who were without energy supply

  • Customers whose energy supply was in an unsafe situation

  • Prepayment customers who were having problems topping up

  • Customers who were in financial hardship and needed to discuss payment terms eg a payment holiday or plan

  • Customers who were in vulnerable circumstances which may be made worse by a delay in having a matter dealt with

Non-urgent cases would be anything else, for example:

  • General queries about a bill

  • Queries about changing a tariff or new products or services

  • Queries about switching

  • Changing account details

  • Credit refunds

3) We think managing customer expectations is important

If an energy supplier was unable to resolve a customer’s issue immediately because it was non-urgent, we will consider whether and how that customer’s expectations were managed and what mitigating actions were taken.

4) We won’t assume every complaint has been affected by Covid-19

If a member company believes Covid-19 was a factor in a complaint, we need them to include this information in their evidence so it can be factored into our decision making.

5) Simply citing Covid-19 won’t be enough

When submitting a case file, suppliers should include specific detail and relevant evidence on how exactly the pandemic and lockdown has been a factor in a complaint. It wouldn’t be enough, for example, to simply attribute a shortfall in customer service to Covid-19 without adding detail.

Final thoughts

Several Ombudsman Services representatives emphasised that, when considering Covid-19 related complaints, we will take a balanced approach and judge each complaint individually on a case-by-case basis. As always, we will aim to make decisions that are fair and tailored to the unique circumstances of the complaint.

As was pointed out during the session, at Ombudsman Services we are only just starting to make decisions on Covid-19 related complaints – due partly to the 8-week rule and resulting time lag in complaints reaching us.

While we have seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 related complaints reaching us in recent weeks, it’s too early to say how sustained and significant this trend will be.

Quite simply, we don’t yet know the true impact of the pandemic and lockdown on consumers, microbusinesses and the energy complaints landscape.

We will, however, endeavour to keep energy suppliers updated and informed as the full picture emerges and our stance on Covid-19 related complaints becomes settled and established.

As Jonathan Lenton said:

“The issues thrown up by Covid-19 are sometimes complex and multifaceted, and there's a lot for us all to think about. We are really happy to continue the discussion – please get in touch with your relationship manager if you would like to set up a session to discuss these issues in more detail.”

Find out more

If you are a member of our scheme, you should have already received the presentation slides and other information from the day, including factsheets on our initial stance on Covid-19 related complaints.

If you haven’t received this information, you can request it by emailing our Relationships team at OSAccountManagers@Ombudsman-Services.org

Click here to access our library of guidance notes for member companies. You may find this and other information on our Partners website useful for internal training purposes.