Media release

Utilities Disputes releases 2020 Annual Report: Access to free and independent dispute resolution services vital

6 August 2020

7,815 people contacted Utilities Disputes last year with concerns or complaints about electricity, gas, water, or broadband installation on shared property. The Utilities Disputes Annual Report, released yesterday, highlights a 17% increase in enquiries and a 10% decrease in complaints.

Electricity and gas issues accounted for 6,968 contacts, followed by 460 about broadband installation on shared property, and 269 about water.

“The increase in enquiries is a positive sign that more people know they can access our free and independent service,” says Utilities Disputes Commissioner Mary Ollivier. “The decrease in complaint investigations signals a greater effort by providers, and our early resolution team, to proactively resolve consumer issues before they escalate.”

With electricity and gas making up 84% of last year’s complaints, bills were the most common complaint issue, followed by customer service, meters, disconnections, and supply. “Sudden high bills, back bills, and incorrect bills can cause a lot of stress,” says Ms Ollivier. “While we can’t make decisions about the price of electricity or gas, we can bring the parties together and broadly investigate the bill, the plan, and the customer service, which makes a big difference.”

Ms Ollivier says many complaints could be avoided with better communication and information. For example, Gary* signed up (with a door salesperson) to switch electricity companies, but when he later phoned to ask why he hadn’t received a bill, he was told he wasn’t a customer. Nine months later, after multiple mix ups, Gary received a backdated bill from the new company for $1,219. After Utilities Disputes investigated, the company acknowledged its errors and reduced the bill to $509. “Customers want clear and accurate information. They want their questions answered, their complaints acknowledged, and some appreciate talking to a readily available person, which is where we can come in.”

The Annual Report includes a list of the number of complaints accepted for consideration by each company. “Complaint numbers do not necessarily reflect negatively on a company,” says Ms Ollivier. “They can, in fact, reflect proactive customer service – as customers should be informed about Utilities Disputes, and unresolved complaints referred on to us.” 

Utilities Disputes Board Chair, Hon Heather Roy, says free access to an independent dispute resolution service is vital in the current climate. With increased competition and services in the energy market, consumers must have access to the assistance they need to voice their concerns and make informed choices,” says Mrs Roy. “Covid-19 continues to present extraordinary challenges. It’s even more important for consumers to stay connected, and to ask for extra help if they need it.” 

Since the Annual Reporting year (April 1 - March 31), Utilities Disputes has received a spike in enquiries during and post lockdown. “
On most occasions, our team has helped resolve issues quickly, and connect customers with the right support,” says Ms Ollivier. “This was significantly helped by providers increasing customer support as a response to Covid-19 with a range of options to reduce confusion and hardship. We appreciate working with industry to improve customer outcomes.”

See the Annual Report
See: www.utilitiesdisputes.co.nz  www.havethepower.nz
Media contact: Zoe Priestley: 021 475 945

 

Case notes

ENERGY: Where is my bill?
When a salesperson for electricity company ABC* knocked on Gary’s* door in February 2018, he signed up on the spot. But when Gary phoned ABC in April to ask why he had not received a bill; they told him he was not a customer. Gary was referred to his previous company XYZ* and was told he was not XYZ's customer either, because of a separate switching error. Still no bill, until September, when Gary received a bill from XYZ. Gary reminded XYZ he was not their customer and asked again to be switched to ABC. Gary finally received a bill from ABC in November for $1,219.17, backdated to February. But Gary said he had not had a contract with ABC during this time. ABC offered to reduce the bill to $609, but Gary wanted it wiped.
OUTCOME: During a conciliation conference, ABC apologised to Gary and agreed it should have offered a payment plan for the bill. The Commissioner said ABC missed multiple opportunities to identify and fix Gary’s issues. However, it was Gary’s responsibility to pay for the electricity he had used, and the switch to ABC was backdated to February. It was fair and reasonable for ABC to reduce the bill to $509 as an acknowledgement of poor customer service. Both parties accepted.
 
BSPAD (Broadband Shared Property Access Disputes): Fibre installation, block of flats
Paula*, a tenant in a block of flats, requested fibre installation, and Mike* (representing the body corporate) objected. He was concerned the installation would damage the driveway and one owner would not contribute to repair costs. The fibre installation company said damage was unlikely, as they use micro-trenching for installations, and a financial dispute in a body corporate was outside the jurisdiction for objections.
OUTCOME: The Commissioner said the company was entitled to install fibre at the block of flats. Paula’s request, with the landlord’s permission, was valid, and the company provided adequate information. Mike’s objection was not valid as relationship issues were outside jurisdiction. If the body corporate had reinstatement concerns, it could follow up after the installation. The company accepted the preliminary determination, but Mike rejected it. Mike could appeal the determination in the district court.

WATER: The leaky water meter
Ben* complained about a leaky water meter and poor customer service. He said he had reported the leak at least five times and had to repeat the same information. He also said he had read insulting comments in the water company's notes.
OUTCOME: The Commissioner said she was satisfied the company fixed the leak they were responsible for (at the gate valve on the public side of the meter) and this leak did not affect the bills. The company informed Ben he was responsible for fixing the leak on his side of the meter, the same leak that affected his bills. Ben’s decision to turn off the water for 3 months until he fixed the leak was not the company's responsibility. The Commissioner said the customer service was reasonable. The company responded quickly and visited Ben’s property each time he made contact. They informed Ben about his responsibilities and his right to apply for a leak allowance. The comments in an internal note expressed frustration, not poor customer service.
 
*names have been changed