When Annabel Miller* took up the offer of a new superfast broadband plan with local and international calls for £40 a month from Shell Energy, she thought she was on to a good deal.
Within six months, however, she had suffered an 18-day broadband outage due to the wrong router being sent to her London home, a series of incorrect bills for more than she was due to pay, and even problems with her house alarm. When she tried to complain, she says she received confusing and frustrating responses.
“It appears Shell Energy decided to use an initial tactic of not responding to complaints, then dismissing them and closing them,” she says.
“I had a number of emails claiming they had been resolved and closed, despite not having received any responses. The strategy was to confuse and distort facts, and ignore my complaints,” she says.
This will have a familiar ring to it. Communications regulator Ofcom announced that the company was the most complained-about broadband and landline provider for the final three months of last year.
It said it was concerned about the continued high volume of complaints, most of which were about faults, service and installations. “It remains important that Shell and other providers continue to work to ensure that consumers receive the level of service expected. As always, should we identify specific concerns with how our rules are followed, we will consider whether it is appropriate to take formal action,” it says.
Miller’s problems started soon after signing up last year, when a router that could not connect to superfast broadband was sent to her, resulting in a loss of internet services for 18 days.
Bills between March and June were incorrect, not taking into account a preferential rate that she had been promised. Then her alarm had to be reset at a cost of £120, after an engineer disturbed wiring while trying to resolve another problem.
She complained frequently, but claims the company tried to brush her off with a £120 credit on her account. The other tactic, she says, was to bunch the three separate complaints together. “They refused to respond separately and tried to force me to accept a so-called ‘goodwill’ payment on condition I would not pursue the other two matters,” she says.
“It kept issuing final-response letters without indicating which complaint they referred to. When I asked for a final response to each of my complaints, so I could complain to Ofcom, it refused.”
Miller complained to the Communications Ombudsman and was contacted by the company last week, a few days after the Observer also raised the problem of poor service. Shell Energy promised a letter of apology and £500 compensation for the broken alarm, billing mistakes, loss of connection, stress and the pay-back for the repairs.
It says it had apologised “for the shortfalls in service she experienced,” adding: “As in all cases, we always strive to put right any issues, and we’re pleased to have resolved all her concerns, agreed a goodwill gesture, and she remains a valued customer of ours.”
The recent Ofcom report showed there were 27 complaints per 100,000 broadband customers for Shell Energy at the end of last year – well ahead of the closest other provider, Vodafone, with 19. And landline complaints – 25 per 100,000 customers – were more than double that of TalkTalk, in second place with 11.
Shell Energy adds: “We always strive to learn from any instances where a customer feels let down. Ofcom’s table reflects our position up to six months ago, and we have invested heavily and made big strides in our customer service and complaint processes since then.
“We are confident these improvements will be reflected when Ofcom releases its next set of figures for January to March 2023.”
There is some expectation in the industry that the number of complaints about broadband services are set to rise this year, as costs increase but service levels stay as they are.
In February, Ofcom launched an investigation into the industry-wide practice of hitting broadband and mobile customers with inflation-busting price rises of up to 17%. And last month, thousands of Virgin Media customers across the UK experienced widespread internet, telephone and TV outages.
Alex Tofts of Broadband Genie, a comparison site, says he expects a jump in complaints in the coming months. “Millions of households have seen double-digit increases in their bills, while customers with Virgin Media, the UK’s third-biggest broadband provider, have been plagued by service failures.
“As budgets are stretched further, consumers are questioning where their extra money is going, and may be more likely to complain if they’re not getting what they pay for.”
Consumers have been told to check when their existing contract runs out – usually after 12, 18 or 24 months – so they can switch to a better offer.
Millions of households are out of contract, says Tofts, due to a lack of knowledge or wariness about switching. Providers are under pressure to introduce “One Touch Switch”, an Ofcom system where customers would only have to contact a new provider to move companies, and not their existing one.
* Name has been changed
Checklist for a better deal
Make sure you can switch: you need to have been through the minimum term on your contract. Otherwise you may get a fine for moving.
See if you can get better offers from your own provider. It may want to keep you if you are out of contract.
Check the competition. Use comparison sites to see what other providers are offering, taking note of speed, data allowance and contract length.
Check for connection or router charges and how long you will be signing up for.
Contact your new provider. If it is part of the Openreach network and you are switching to another provider on the same network, then you may be able to use the One Touch Switch option. Otherwise, you have to contact both providers.
Source: Which?, Ofcom