Customers failed by energy firms

Energy companies are failing to communicate incentives and should do more to make customers feel comfortable with price rises, according to some leading PR experts.

Energy firms fail to connect with worried customers
Energy firms fail to connect with worried customers

Widespread fears of spiralling energy costs were confirmed on Friday when EDF Energy raised electricity prices by 17 per cent and gas prices by 22 per cent.

Other big providers Centrica, npower, E.ON, Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy are expected to quickly follow suit.

But disgruntled customers railed against the rises, placing the spotlight on how they were communicated.

'Customers want to know what they are getting out of price rises,' said Virgin Atlantic director of comms Paul Charles.

'The only interaction people have with energy companies is bills. Firms must give something back. A loyalty scheme or something more than simply complaining about high costs,' he added.

'It is ironic that energy companies come across as so cold,' said one former energy sector PRO. 'Customers know oil prices are high, they do not need to be told that again. The messaging has to focus on what the energy companies are going to do about it.'

EDF Energy drew attention to the help it gives its poorest customers, 100,000 of whom now benefit from a 15 per cent discount.

It has also stressed that it is working with the Government on the possibility of a fuel voucher scheme.

'Record world oil prices have continued to drive up wholesale gas prices,' said EDF Energy customers' branch CEO Eva Eisenschimmel.

'Alongside unprecedented rises in wholesale coal and electricity costs, this has impacted hugely on the cost of supplying energy to our customers,' she added.

In April, the six big firms brokered a deal with business secretary John Hutton to boost their collective annual spend on social assistance programmes by £225m over the next three years. However, this was slammed by consumer groups, including Energywatch.

Npower head of PR Richard Frost pointed to China's switch from a net exporter to a net importer of coal and India's surge in energy usage to explain rising prices. 'We are no longer an island from an energy point of view,' he said.

Earlier this year, Centrica-owned British Gas launched a PR-led competition giving residents in eight streets £30,000 to spend on energy saving equipment. The street that reduces energy bills the most will receive £50,000 to spend on a community project.

HOW I SEE IT - Teresa-Anne Dunleavy, CEO, Good Relations. Getting the message straight internally is key and we tell clients to 'test drive' the message wherever their business meets the consumer. In terms of message content it is important to be transparent and explain the reasons as far as reasonably practical. Make sure you share the facts of any steps taken, where they legitimately exist, to protect vulnerable groups. Getting on the front foot is also key - tell your consumers before they hear about it from others and make sure you brief your worst critics. There is a chance that the courtesy along with the actual facts will help soften the treatment.

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