Still paying the Bills (or not)

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.

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12 Comments on “Still paying the Bills (or not)”

  1. trevor Says:

    Hilarious! Makes me feel so much better about the hours I have spent on the phone to customer ‘service’ agents. Have you ever had to suffer the UPC call holding jingle? It has almost reduced me to tears on two occasions – I endured it for 27 minutes once because, in a state of frustration induced paranoia, I thought they were using it to wear me down – it almost worked!

    • Oh heavens, yes. The ‘music’ while they put you on hold or while you ‘wait for a service agent’. The (completely mindless) song used by this particular company also haunts me, and not in a good way…

  2. Pidge Says:

    If it keeps going on, find out the phone number of the corporate office, call them, and ask to speak to the executive in charge of customer relations. And send a concise letter to the CEO.

    My problems with UPC were sorted out in about a week after I did that.

  3. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Pidge probably has the right advice here, but another option is to just move house. Probably less stressful!
    I had a brilliant time as a student when the local council refused to believe I was a student (and therefore exempt from council tax)despite showing letters from the university, my active matric card etc. When I finally managed to persuade them, there was no apology, and I graduated soon after – whereupon they refused to believe I was not a student anymore and wouldn’t send me a bill!

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m sorry but if people like you with the force of education reputation position and raw cash cannot put that sort of thing to the sword what hope have the rest of us.
    Further is this not a good deal of the cause of clientism that to find on these Islands where the letter to the TD/MP becomes part and parcel of the life of the Citizen/Subject.
    What I cannot see in this type of scenario is why you cannot simply charge the company and its directors with criminal theft, in so far as you informed the company of the error and they continued even to compound the situation by sending threatening letters.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    This could be the script for a play in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition whose characteristics include: broad comedy, characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, (in this case the various Bill customer representatives and the fact that it is about a bill!) and nonsense; plots that are cyclical etc.
    But did you ever get to know the first archetypal Bill’s surname, in order to distinguish him from the others for subsequent enquiries??

    • More than once I have wondered whether I was a character in a Max Frisch play…

      No, I have never asked to know any of the Bills’ surnames – it would kind of kill off the surreal nature of it all.

      • anna notaro Says:

        ah yes..that reminds me of Frisch’s Homo Faber novel, with all the hammer-blows inflicted on Faber by fate, in this case the senseless burocracy a utility company!

  6. Aengus Says:

    Ferdinand, you can’t leave it at that, contact home and find out what the letter is about and tell us!

  7. kevin denny Says:

    I remember moving into a flat or a house which had a fully functioning phone. I rang the phone company so they could put the account in our name. The lady kindly insisted that there was no phone in that property, despite my protestations that I was speaking to her on that line. So no bills 🙂 .

  8. Timothy Says:

    This is very funny. Probably most people have at some time or another comparable struggles with computerised billing systems which no lower level official or customer service representative knows how to turn off. My own attempts to stop the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown computer from sending me, twice a year, increasingly threatening bills for waste collection for a period several years earlier during which the Council itself had formally acknowledged that the house was unoccupied (and involving multiple phone calls, emails, letters (including one to the Director of Finance, by name, and a personal visit to deliver a notarized statement) are more tedious and less amusing than the story of the Bills. Eventually a person with some authority over the computer wrote to accept one of my excessively generous offers of partial payment to settle the matter.
    There is nothing particularly Irish about this. About thirteen years ago I was living in the US and had an investment account with a well-known brokerage firm. I wanted to bring in some money from England to buy some securities. Since this involved a foreign exchange transaction it required opening a commodities and exchange trading account and acknowledging I accepted all the risks of commodity speculation—you would have thought I was proposing to engage in day trading of pork belly futures. Since the firm had no way of knowing that this was the only such transaction I could possibly undertake, it kept the account open with a balance of $0.01. After some three years of receiving monthly statements of this account, I told my broker that it was a bit pointless, especially since I was closing my account with the firm. He was amused but evidently did nothing about it. So it has gone on for years—at one time the balance mysteriously doubled to $0.02 (amazing at a time of virtually zero interest rates!) but it has now gone back to $0.01, and since the statements are now posted to Ireland the cost to the firm must have increased. Subsequently the firm has been part of a whole series of takeovers, and it seems very likely that my broker has moved on. Recently it decided to charge inactive accounts $35 a month. So I wrote formally to point out that my account had been closed since 2002. This seemed to have done the trick—the next account showed a balance of $0.00. But now it has started again with a balance of -$35!

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