For those readers who were not already following this blog in the autumn of 2008 (and that’s most of you), let me, with your indulgence, first reproduce a post I wrote back then. I should warn you, it is a tragic tale with Shakespearean undertones.
It is a tale about bureaucratic chaos in a utility. It is also (I swear) a true story.
The utility in question supplies me with energy in a property I own (not in Dublin). Some time ago, I noticed that the bills I was getting could not be correct – they were based on an energy consumption which was way above what I was using. Eventually, after reading the meter myself and several phone calls to the utility, they admitted that they had been reading the wrong meter and had been charging me for someone else’s energy use. But they declared themselves unwilling to refund anything: because they had never read the correct meter, they claimed they could not actually tell how much energy we had used, and for all they knew – they said – we could actually have used more than what we were billed for. I pointed out that I was only in the property for a few days every year, whereas the family who lived in the property for whose consumption we had been charged was there full-time.
Well, when on one occasion I explained all this to the very pleasant man (called Bill) in their customer relations department, he assured me he would look after it, and I should for the moment pay no more money until it was sorted out. Reassured by Bill, I did nothing more, and in fact forgot about the whole thing until, a year later, I got a notice telling me I was about to be cut off for non-payment. I immediately rang the company and asked for Bill. I got Bill, but as it turns out, not the same Bill. We’ll call him Bill II. Bill II was very different from Bill I. He was surly, and frankly didn’t believe a word I said, and knew nothing about the promises made by Bill I. He looked at the file and declared it told him that I had been charged for the wrong property, and that I owed the company a considerable amount of money because I had been under-charged. In fact, when I dug a little deeper, it transpired he had come to the conclusion that I had to pay both the money from the wrong property (which I had paid, wrongly) and the charge for my own property. When I protested that this was nonsense, he declared that he was under no obligation to put up with such language and that I was harassing him. He then hung up.
About ten minutes later I got a phone call, and it was Bill I. As he was my friend, we chatted about this and that, his son’s (unsatisfactory) school results and what he might do career-wise, the terrible summer we were having. And then he apologised for Bill II, who had briefed him and who, he confided, was ‘highly strung’. Bill I was helpful as ever. He had no idea why it hadn’t all been resolved, but he would get on to it immediately, and in the meantime I should pay nothing. I made a mental note to send Bill I a Christmas card and a note with some career advice for his son.
However, it turned out that highly strung Bill II had not passed on the baton, for I next got a curt letter from a collection agency, who were going to get my outstanding money from me – which inexplicably had now increased by over €100. I tried to ring Bill I, but was told that there was nobody called Bill in the company’s customer relations department – did I mean William? OK, let’s have William. William (of course called Bill by his friends and customers, therefore Bill III) was someone entirely different, and refreshingly honest. ‘Our way of sending out invoices is total crap’, he offered. He would get this sorted out at once, he knew how to do it. And in just a few days I received a cheque in the post, with a ‘refund’ of a sum I couldn’t recognise at all. It was more than I had ever paid them in the first place (and therefore definitely more than I was due).
I rang and asked for Bill, and got Bill II. Something life-changing had happened to Bill II, because he was now polite and cheerful, and offered the view that I had been badly treated and deserved the refund I had got, and shouldn’t query it. When I showed signs that I would query it, traces of the old Bill II emerged, and he indicated that some customers were never satisfied. He would send me a new bill, but I should cash the refund in the meantime.
The new bill never arrived. In fact, no bill arrived, for ages, new or old. I was (modestly) using energy, and could not imagine what was actually going to happen. Then, back in DCU, I received a letter addressed to my office but not to me – it was to a Mr A. Shindig (name changed slightly to protect the innocent). Nobody here knew anyone by that name, and so the letter had been passed around a bit before anyone decided to check with me. The envelope contained a letter threatening to cut off the energy supply to my property, and Mr Shindig was told in no uncertain terms that he was a vagabond and a rogue for not paying his bills – or rather, for not paying my bills.
So I rang the company. Should I ask for one of the Bills? Yes, I did. I just asked for Bill. And Bill answered. No, no Bill I had ever come across before. It was Bill IV. Bill IV looked into my file, and told me that I owed them a lot of money, and that I was seriously delinquent in not paying up and not even contacting them. I pointed out they were writing to Mr A Shindig, and that was not a sure way of getting me. ‘You have a point’, Bill IV said graciously. Who is Mr A Shindig, I asked. ‘Good question’, Bill answered, ‘I was wondering that myself’. Bill IV has promised to look into all of this, and has advised me not to pay anything, and to ignore the threats from the collection agencies.
So that is where we are now. I spoke to Bill IV three weeks ago, and I have heard nothing since. I am expecting a knock on the door, with court documents for my trial for non-payment. If you do not hear from me again, it will not have gone well. Please call Bill for me.
That was the story in September 2008. Now let me update you. Absolutely nothing happened until the late spring of 2009, and then I got another bill, with a little note inside saying that everything was now correct. The bill claimed that I had a credit balance of quite substantial proportions. At this stage I had lost track of what my position legitimately was, and the prospect of further discussions with one of the Bills didn’t seem as attractive any more, and so I decided I had done enough, that I would accept the credit and get on with the rest of my life. Based on a rough calculation of my actual consumption, I reckoned the new credit balance would see me through for about a year. Bills kept coming during that time, and I glanced at them briefly and forgot about them.
Then, in the summer of last year, it began to dawn on me that, in every bill, the credit balance was growing rather than diminishing, as if they had calculated my consumption and added it to (rather than subtract it from) the credit balance. Shortly afterwards I happened to chat with the man who owns the meter from which I was originally (wrongly) charged. ‘Do you know’, he said, ‘my bill from — plc is routinely about twice what it should be. I almost wonder whether I’m paying for someone else’s use also.’ I said nothing, not a word, but decided I had to get back in touch with Bill. I knew what to do: ring customer relations and ask for Bill. A moment’s wait, and then a lady answered. ‘Are you Bill,’ I asked improbably. ‘No, I’m Sandra.’ – ‘I asked for Bill.’ She paused, and then just said ‘What can I do for you?’ Oh dear, the sequence of Bills has been broken.
Sandra is no Bill. She promised to look into ‘everything’ but, six months later, I hadn’t heard anything. Until this week. I’m away from home just now, but I’ve been told that a letter from the energy company is waiting for me, marked ‘urgent’. Wish me luck.