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Customer services takes foot off gas

The last time I had dinner with Centrica?s boss Roy Gardner, he didn?t strike me as someone who suffers...

The last time I had dinner with Centrica?s boss Roy Gardner, he didn?t strike me as someone who suffers fools gladly. In fact, I?d say he?s a tough nut who drives a hard bargain. So I wonder how he reacts to the frustrating nonsense that passes for customer service at British Gas, part of his Centrica empire.

A few weeks ago, the company wrote to me, explaining that the law obliged it to carry out a safety check on my meter. Fair enough. I called to arrange a visit and was told that I had to be in all morning (8am-noon) because no specific time could be guaranteed.

On the agreed day I was up early, but by 11am the inspector hadn?t shown and I had to leave for work. That night a grubby card was on my doormat, saying the meter man had arrived later (no time specified).

The next correspondence from the British Gas charm school came last week. It began, untruthfully, "Despite many attempts to inspect and read your gas meter over the last 18 months, we have not been able to gain access... "

Given that I?ve only had the flat since March and have received just one request from British Gas to check equipment, I didn?t like this missive?s tone. I appreciated it even less when I got to the bit about the company applying to a magistrate for a warrant to enter my premises by force.

Eager to avoid this intrusion, I called the customer services centre which boasts it operates from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday. I started ringing at 8.02am; at 8.09 an electronic voice told me, "sorry, there?s no reply". Determined to beat the system, I called again at 8.20am. After another seven minutes of unanswered ringing, the same electronic voice said, "sorry, there?s no reply".

By now, steam was coming out of my ears.

I get the strong impression that British Gas thinks its customers are there to provide it with a living. The idea that the company might be in business to deliver a service seems to have passed it by. My previous experience with its central heating division was too horrendous to bore you with, but believe me it stank.

The contrast with the Automobile Association, another Centrica business, could not be starker. Not only are the AA?s people polite and efficient, its inexpensive breakdown service is outstanding. On the few occasions I?ve had to call it out, the AA?s rescue squad has never kept me waiting for more than an hour (unlike British Gas).

So, here?s a suggestion Roy: fire the British Gas customer-service jokers, and employ the AA to run its operations. I?m sure you?d find an immediate improvement.

EXCUSE the schadenfreude, but I couldn?t help smiling when I read of the Industry Standard?s demise. For those of you not familiar with this magazine, it was the bible of the boomers, most of whom are now busters.

At the height of the late Nineties? e-commerce craze, friends and foes alike accused me of being a dinosaur because I failed to see the Standard?s attractions. For me, it was no more than a parish magazine for Californian computer geeks.

That said, the Industry Standard became America?s fastest growing publication, with more than 350 pages an issue. For a while it was stuffed full of advertisements for daft businesses that thought they would overtake the likes of Ford, Citibank and Coca-Cola to become Masters of the Universe.

The re-emergence of financial reality, however, was never far away. And once the assetless, cash-flowless, profitless bubbles began to burst, subscriptions to the Standard vanished like information on a crashed PC. It was part of the great illusion that enriched a few, but destroyed value for many more.

SO MUCH for Britain becoming an enterprise society. Last week, I again witnessed our anti-business mindset.

En route to Bury St Edmunds, a BBC colleague and I decided to stop at a pretty East Anglian village for a pub lunch. It was a picture postcard scene: ducks on pond, ivy-clad walls, and hand-painted signs boasting of the hostelry?s quality fare.

In we rushed, ordered two drinks, and looked keenly at the impressive menu, only to be told by the barmaid, "sorry, we?ve stopped serving food". I protested, but she insisted with a sneer, "we stop serving food at half past one". It was 1.35pm.

My mind boggled at the thought of a lunch business that pulls down the shutters halfway through lunch hour. Even more annoying was the fact that we were standing there, cash in hand, but this grim-faced harridan had no desire to clinch the deal. It reminded me of the Monty Python sketch, where an increasingly manic customer cannot buy cheese in a cheese shop.

Can you imagine this happening in America? Walk into a New York deli, day or night, and if you?ve got dollars to spend, they?re delighted to take them. In sleepy Suffolk, however, they turn money away rather than make an effort. Very sad.

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