Where have all the Ps and Qs gone?

Powergen was rapped last month by the BBC's TV business programme Working Lunch. Its sin? Abruptly telling up to 40,000 pensioners - signed up to its preferential Staywarm scheme - that they were using too much energy and their contracts might not be renewed.

Now no one is suggesting Powergen should run the scheme at a loss. But it was the poor way it handled customer communications that upset Working Lunch.

Tell me about it ... I've recently had a run-in with the waste removal firm Biffa (or B-for-bungler, as I think of it). Living in a particularly rural area, we don't have the luxury of mains drainage. Biffa is the company which, every couple of months, empties our septic tank, and its latest bill was almost three-times what we were expecting.

One item of £79 looked more or less correct, allowing for a four per cent price increase Biffa hadn't told us about. The second, for £70, and allegedly seriously overdue, we didn't immediately recognise.

Rummaging through the files, we eventually identified it as a bit of the company's own internal paperwork. That is, we had a receipt stating it was a 'books-only invoice, paid with thanks'.

Third was an administration charge of £62. A covering letter explained that EU regulations - always a great excuse - require Biffa to keep records of all the waste it disposes of. A good thing, too, most would say.

For years, apparently, this charitably minded company has borne the cost of the paperwork, but can no longer afford to do so. It reminded me that my role, apart from paying the £62, is a legal responsibility to instruct a member of staff to complete an annual transfer note, detailing what waste is involved.

There's a short, four-letter response to that, but never mind. Who could I get to complete the form? My personal secretary, Wrighton-Regardless is dyslexic, Mellors the gamekeeper is happier lurking, and Pendleberry the butler believes he employs me.

But then I thought - £62 to deal with one transfer note? After all, £60 a day equates to £15,000 a year. Was it going to take a Biffa clerk the best part of a day to process my form? Very, very thorough. Or very inefficient.

The company barely had time to receive my response before it sent me a Final Demand. So, off went further copies of the paperwork, this time by registered post and addressed personally to the credit controller.

A fortnight later, two credit notes arrived. The £70 invoice had been 'raised in error', the £62 administration fee 'charged incorrectly'. But no covering letter, no hint of an apology. When a company is focused on making brass from muck, there's no room for niceties in customer relations.


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