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Rip-off at the doorstep

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Centrica plc (‘British Gas’) today announced that

its field sales agents will cease doorstep energy sales activity for an initial three-month period. This in line with a request to all suppliers made by Consumer Focus. The energy provider will now work with its customers and consumer bodies to develop the way it provides access to advice and information about its products and services, including the role of appointment based face-to-face advice.

Doorstep selling, in its current form, is an increasingly outdated way for energy companies to engage new customers who no longer regard it as a preferred or trusted way to review their energy arrangements.

British Gas has been reducing the use of doorstep selling for many years. The number of British Gas field sales agents is now less than a quarter of the 1,300 employed in 2006.

Adam Scorer, Director of External Affairs at Consumer Focus, said:

‘British Gas has responded to our call for action. We applaud the move and call for others to follow the lead set by British Gas and SSE. This is the sort of move that responsible companies make when it becomes clear that consumers are unhappy with the way they do business.

‘For over a decade cold call doorstep sales have led to hundreds of thousands of people paying more for their energy after switching to a worse deal. We know people strongly dislike doorstep sales, feel pressured to switch at the door and that energy firms don’t offer their best rates face-to-face. Cold call energy sales simply aren’t what customers need or want.

‘Energy firms have had years to get doorstep sales right. There have been plenty of well-intentioned commitments and initiatives to do things better, but they have failed to deliver the change that consumers want.2 Unless other energy firms realise the end of the road has been reached on cold call doorstep sales, mis-selling will continue to drive consumer mistrust even deeper. It also risks damaging consumer confidence and buy-in for key Government schemes, including the Green Deal and smart meter roll-out.

‘We would urge all consumers to think twice before they buy on the doorstep, shop around for the best deal, and take time to think things over before making a final decision.’

But British Gas seems to be reserving the right to resume such activity, if its competitors persevere with it.

The fact is, door to door utility salespersons have been scamming people across Britain for years, with many of them working for unscrupulous ‘marketing’ firms hired by the energy suppliers. It’s outrageous that they are allowed to call at the homes of confused old people, and sign them over to more expensive contracts.

Consumer Focus suggests that all consumers ‘shop around for the best deal’, but this is much easier said than done. The utilities companies have a plethora of different and complex tariffs, and equally complex terms and conditions. This makes the comparison of suppliers’ offers an extremely difficult task, probably beyond the capabilities of most people. So there needs to be a substantial amount of imposed tariff standardisation, in order that people can make informed choices between different suppliers’ quotes on the same product.

Written by beleben

August 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm

That’s roadshow business

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DfT HS2 Roadshow exhibition at Birmingham's WaterhallAs part of the government’s public consultation on HS2, the Department for Transport (DfT) has run a series of roadshow events over the last few months (the last ones having taken place in central Birmingham on June 17 and 18).

From the Department for Transport high speed rail subdomain:

A series of public information events will be held at locations along the proposed route. They will provide an opportunity to view the proposals, presenting information in a clear, accurate and accessible way, as well as offering the chance for you to speak to the HS2 team and officials from the Department for Transport. If you are unable to attend an event, the exhibition material will be available on this site after each one.

So, the stated purpose of the roadshow events was to disseminate information to – and collect feedback from – the public. As well as support and ‘customer relations’ staff, the roadshows included a few officials from HS2 Ltd, DfT, and consultants (e.g., Arup) involved with drawing up the scheme (different staff attended each event). At Birmingham’s Waterhall, the exhibition included computers to access HS2 documentation, noise simulation sound booths, and display panels.

Having been along to a couple of the exhibitions, I got the impression that they were more about selling HS2, than being informational. The display stands and brochures had little, if anything, to say about the wider context of future transport needs and options, and there was no attempt to set out the pros and cons of high speed rail in a systematic way. Although the government describes HS2 as a project of national importance, the roadshow only went to places near the stage one section (London to Birmingham, and Staffordshire). From attending a HS2 roadshow, the man or woman in the street would never be aware that there are alternative viewpoints. In fact, the displays and brochures didn’t even detail the government’s own limited studies of “HS2 alternatives” (‘Rail Interventions‘ etc).

Brummy Delight

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Birmingham Global City Local HeartOn BBC television yesterday (2011-05-16) there was another Business Nightmares programme about marketing failures. I suppose the Hoover free flights debacle is now long enough ago, for some people (business undergraduates?) not to know about it. A bit like when the intro to “Just Like Starting Over” was played on University Challenge, and neither team had any idea what it was.

Even though Business Nightmares wasn’t much more than an excuse to air some old tapes, it did – at least in the section about Sunny Delight – serve as a reminder of the limits of branding. After the British public woke up to the realities of the delightful drink, sales went into a freefall that no amount of rebranding could reverse.

About the time Sunny Delight was growing its market share, more of Britain’s local authorities were becoming interested in marketing. In the 1980s, Glasgow’s Miles Better was one of the first attempts to rebrand a British city. But no matter how many times this null comparison was printed on public relations brochures, it made no difference to daily life.

In 2005 Centro, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, commenced rebranding of public transport using the ‘Network West Midlands’ moniker on vehicles, bus stops, stations, printed material, advertising, and internet. Unsurprisingly, the rebrand failed to have any effect on usage of bus, rail and tram services. The idea of fostering the belief that there was a public transport ‘network’ – rather than a number of customer-averse companies, in competition with each other – was bound to fail.

Under council leader Mike Whitby, the phrase ‘Global City, Local Heart‘ has been added to Birmingham council’s website, amongst other things. The city wants to market itself as an international business city. But the buzzphrase had not stopped the implosion of the city’s private sector, which has seen Metro-Cammell, Serck, Denso (Lucas), Rover (Austin), and the Sherpa van factory (Leyland Daf) all passing into history, oblivious to sloganeering.

Hype is no substitute for substance. Any attempt at (re-)branding a city is destined to fail, unless there is some underlying truth on which to build. In Birmingham, the back story is years of industrial decline, bad air quality, poor transport, overcrowding, antisocial behaviour, lamentable architecture, and dysfunctional transparency. So I don’t think Sion Simon‘s talking up the importance of branding offers a way forward. There has to be a semblance of progress on real issues, before calling in the yah men.

Written by beleben

May 17, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Birmingham: change ‘railly’ needed

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In recent years, the local rail services serving Greater Birmingham have seen strong increases in passenger numbers, although buses and trams (Midland Metro) have seen zero or negative growth:

West Midlands transit usage by mode, to 2010 (source: Centro)

West Midlands transit usage by mode, to 2010 (source: Centro)

Rail’s performance is noteworthy, since

  • Central Trains – the main operator from 1997 to 2007 – was renowned for its ineptitude
  • Network Rail – the infrastructure owner – prioritises long distance and freight trains
  • Centro – the public transport ‘promoter’ – has done almost nothing, apart from spending £14 million on car parks at stations.

For years, marketing has been inept, with two attempts at rail-specific branding (‘Westmidrail’ and ‘Midline’) discarded. And from the bar charts, there’s no evidence that the 2005 ‘Network West Midlands‘ cross-modal branding has had any effect.

The only track electrified since Centro was set up (in 1969) is the ‘Cross City Line‘. It’s unlikely that Centro – in its current form – has the wherewithal or vision to deliver a versatile regional rail system, as opposed to the current ‘collection of lines, that run into Birmingham’. Centro’s priorities lie elsewhere. Although it’s supposed to promote local public transport in the West Midlands, it has spent £70,000 on lobbying for High Speed Two, the controversial intercity rail project.

Centro has failed to protect land and rights of way for future regional transport use. In 1972, it facilitated the closure of the passenger rail service between Birmingham, West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton Low Level  (and Birmingham and Smethwick West). In the 1990s, it spent £150 million restoring the Wolverhampton line, but as a low speed tramway (Midland Metro Line One) – whose existence is a major obstacle to creating an effective regional rail system.