Spare a thought for poor Dave Spragg. For months, Dave was bombarded by letters from an energy company chasing an ever-spiralling amount of debt – ending up somewhere in the vicinity of £3,000. Eventually the company even went as far as sending the heavies round – debt collectors turned up at his house demanding entry.
This all sounds like the unpleasant but normal process for getting money back from someone who is refusing to pay. The snag in Dave’s case is that the debt wasn’t actually his. The energy company that was turning the screws was not the one Dave was signed up with. The firm had mixed up its records, confusing his address with a house 200 miles away from his home in Hertfordshire.
It’s unfortunate for everyone involved. Dave, a business owner who has elderly relatives he takes care of, has branded the situation “absolutely crazy”, saying it caused “extra stress”.
His story was picked up by the BBC’s Rip Off Britain programme and reported across the British tabloids.
It’s not a good look for the energy company either. Against the backdrop of runaway gas and electricity price increases, sensitivities around paying for energy are already heightened. A story of someone being unfairly targeted for debt collection is hardly likely to lower the temperature.
So, what can companies who have to deal with the challenging business of debt collection learn from Dave’s ordeal? Here are three takeaways to ensure this does not happen to you.
You must be easy to contact
According to Dave’s account on the UK television series ‘Rip Off Britain’, he tried for ‘months’ to get hold of the energy company and inform them of their mistake but found it difficult to get through. Meanwhile the letters kept piling up. Unfortunately, the company has not publicly responded to this claim, but what we do know is that this issue was going on and on and that regardless of them offering email, phone and on-site chat functions, Dave was not able to communicate in a way that led to a quick resolution of the issue.
Energy companies need to be available across the myriad channels consumers use. This includes social media, text and WhatsApp. Using conversational AI, brands can be where consumers are at all times and respond naturally, connecting to humans in the contact centre when cases need an extra level of sensitivity. In an unusual case such as Dave’s, it’s likely a human would have to be involved at some point, but programmes such as ContactEngine can ensure the right department is connected for a speedy resolution.
You must be quick to respond
Eventually Dave abandoned hopes of getting through to the energy company and instead raised a complaint with the Energy Ombudsman. To be fair to the supplier here, The Ombudsman informed Dave that there was an address error on the National Electricity Supply Database. This isn’t the energy company’s fault, but they gave him £75 compensation anyway.
That should have been the end of it, but five months later Dave was visited by debt collectors turning up at his house, resulting in him having to go through the whole chain of communications again.
In a world of instant messaging, the length of this ordeal is just unacceptable. Issues like this should not be hanging over consumers when surely such an easy fix would solve it. In sensitive cases of debt collection, timeliness, professionalism and, crucially, a light touch are valued above all. Again, conversational AI can manage millions of conversations seamlessly, responding quickly to changing concerns.
You must manage your data well
Energy companies have little, if any, influence over the National Electricity Supply Database, but, in this case, and by their own admittance, the debt collectors turning up was their fault. They had removed Dave’s address from the wrong account their side, but they confessed they “didn’t reconcile this with the supply address data… used by the debt collection agency.” Oops.
Market-leading communications can only happen with market-leading data and, if you’re relying on humans to keep records up to date, then there will always be human error. However, finely tuned AI can join your communications up neatly, keeping your databases accurate and avoiding embarrassing consequences. The energy company in question said its records have now been updated, and said it has made another goodwill gesture payment, though it hasn’t disclosed the amount publicly.
Dave is of course the real victim here but spare a thought for the energy company too. Not only has this been an embarrassing case, but it may well have been a costly one. Mistakes like this are bound to happen when you’re relying on humans to do tasks that rely on a high level of accuracy, such as manage customer issues and data. These are jobs best left to machines, working in partnership with humans when a level of emotion and connection is needed.
Don’t let your debt collection activities cause a scandal. There are plenty of tools available to help you keep out of the tabloids this winter.