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Why six-week signposting is good for both consumers and the industry

Ombudsman Services | Dec 16, 2019

By Tony Keeling, Managing Director of SSE Energy Services

When a customer chooses an energy supplier, how much of their decision is based on price, green credentials, or the supplier’s customer service record? And how much consideration is given to how long they might have to wait to escalate a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman if something goes wrong? Of course, no one picks an energy company expecting to have to go to the ombudsman to resolve an issue down the line. However, the reality is, the Energy Ombudsman helps resolve over 45,000 complaints every year and complaints are on the up – particularly from customers of smaller suppliers, as highlighted by Ofgem’s recent State of the Market report.

The Energy Ombudsman acts as a safety net for energy consumers as the ombudsman is there to help resolve complaints that can’t be settled directly with an energy supplier. However, the success of the ombudsman being able to do this depends on consumer awareness of their right to escalate their complaint to the ombudsman in the first place.

Currently, SSE is the only supplier who signposts customers to Ombudsman Services if a complaint has not been successfully resolved within six weeks.

Our experience with early signposting to Ombudsman Services has certainly been positive and we think consumers and the wider industry would benefit from the same. Acting swiftly with customers’ complaints prevents bad feelings from intensifying which could leave consumers increasingly frustrated. Reducing our signpost time by a quarter has encouraged us to put a bigger focus on our complaint handling processes and improving the experience for our customers. Last year’s figures show nine in 10 closed complaints were resolved within six weeks (94.4%).

In fact, our overall volumes of ombudsman complaints have been on a downward trend since 2015 – when we brought in six-week referrals - and we continue to receive some of the lowest levels of complaints to the ombudsman in the industry. In the period between April and June 2019, Ombudsman Services accepted fewer than five SSE complaints per 100,000 customers, compared to the energy sector average of more than 30. This is also reflected in our performance in the Citizens Advice Energy Supplier League Table, where we are consistently placed among the top performing suppliers.

While our aim is to resolve all customer complaints as quickly as possible, there will always be more complex issues which take longer to resolve, and we believe companies should be given adequate time to deal with complaints.

Money Saving Expert is campaigning to reduce the current eight-week period to two - four weeks which could be a significant change for the industry. However, some cases require more time to be fully investigated and resolved. Reducing to two - four weeks may result in an influx of complaints to the ombudsman which could have been resolved between the supplier and customer in the first instance.

As a first step it would be encouraging to see more of the industry move towards the six-week signposting stage. Of course there will be practical issues to consider such as communicating changes to customers and training staff – however, our experience suggests that resulting benefits are worth the effort.

We’ve proven that a six-week period is not only possible, but consumers get a better service as a result and we’d urge the rest of the industry to do the same. In turn this would improve the perception of the sector and restore trust by consumers who may not always have experienced the best of what suppliers have to offer.

Tony Keeling, Managing Director of SSE Energy Services