What's really behind that high bill?
It’s a question EWOV team members find themselves asking several times a day, every day—and, given the case trends, more often than ever before. Each one of the following high bill cases represents a customer who considered it necessary to contact EWOV to have their concerns addressed following unsuccessful contact with their retailer.
In 2011-12, 5,852 customers raised high bill as their main issue
- 1% more customers than in 2010-11 (5,766)
- 46% more customers than in 2009-10 (4,013)
Against the same quarter last year
In the July to September 2012 quarter, 2,385 customers raised high bill as their main issue
- 32% more than in the July to September 2011 quarter (1,804)
- 90% more than in the April to June 2012 quarter (1,254)
In 2011-12, 5,470 residential customers and 366 business customers raised high bill/s as their main issue. Compared with 2010-11, the number of residential customers remained very high but fell slightly from 5,479, but the number of small business customers increased 30% from 282.
About high bill investigations
EWOV’s investigation of a high bill complaint is a process of determining whether the company has contributed to the reason for the high bill. It’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact cause of a higher-than-expected bill—it’s often only possible to identify what wasn’t the cause. The aim of our investigation is to confirm that the customer has been billed accurately, with the meter correctly recording their usage.
So what does EWOV find behind high bills?
- Affordability issues—the customer can’t afford to pay the bill and possibly can’t afford to pay for the electricity, gas and/or water they’re using day-to-day
- Customer usage patterns—hot or cold weather; new or old appliances; building alterations; more people living in or using the property (See High bill case study: It was the customer's usage below)
- Billing system problems
- Back billing after billing system problems, estimated meter reads, account errors (residential case study; small business case study)
- Accumulation of unpaid/partially paid accounts
- Concessions or loyalty rewards not applied or applied wrongly
- Faulty wiring/plumbing/appliance in the customer’s property
- Smart Meter installation (case study)
- Missing solar feed-in credits
- Bulk hot water meter issues (case study)
- Meter data errors (case study)
- Meter reading errors (residential case study (See High bill case study: Customer's insistence (and persistence) pays off below; small business case study)
- Incorrect tariff calculations, increases, changes
- Gas and water leaks
High Bills - Things customers should do
- Customers should understand and manage their usage to minimise the potential for high bills.
- Customers should tell their company early on if they receive a bill they can’t afford to pay.
- Customers should work with their company to set up a payment plan they can stick to.
Customers should understand and manage their usage
Customers have a responsibility to understand the appliances, equipment and fixtures at their property, how much energy or water is being used and when. Customers buying new appliances, equipment or fixtures should check efficiency ratings as well as the price. The busiest times of year for high bill complaints are straight after winter and summer—especially when it’s been very cold or very hot. Heating appliances (particularly oil column heaters, electric wall heaters) and cooling appliances (particularly air-conditioning) can be expensive to use— especially if used at incorrect settings or with faults.
High electricity bills are most common. The Victorian Government’s SwitchOn web site www.switchon.vic.gov.au is a great source of information on electricity usage:
- What is the cost of your 10 major appliances?
- Do you use more or less electricity than other similar households?
Customers should make their premises as energy and water efficient as they can
Some properties use a lot more energy and water than others, costing their occupants more than average to heat and/or cool. It might be the appliances, equipment or fixtures, or it might be the way the building is constructed—for example, where the windows are placed and how they’re covered, how the walls, ceilings and floors are insulated, the choice and placement of heating, cooling and hot water systems, and the extent of draught-proofing.
Average energy use in an Australian home*
* Victorian Government’s SwitchOn website
- high electricity and natural gas bills fact sheet for residential customers
- high water bills fact sheet for residential customers
- high energy and water bills online video for customers
- energy efficiency online video for customers
Tips from the SwitchOn web site :
- What makes up my power bill costs?
- Top 10 ways to save power
- Get saving tips for every room in your house
ALERT: WILL YOUR WATER USE MEAN YOUR NEXT WATER BILL IS A HIGH ONE?
From the Department of Human Services (DHS):
Information on financial support from the Department of Human Services (DHS): DHS also has a scheme to assist customers repair or replace faulty appliances/fixtures.
Customers should be aware of their rights.
The Energy Retail Code sets out the rights and responsibilities of residential and small business customers when it comes to bills, billing, capacity to pay, payment difficulties and instalment plans. The Victorian Water Customer Service Codes set out the same in water.
A property’s energy and water efficiency can be hard to control if you’re renting. Tenants should talk to the landlord if they think a fixture, such as the hot water service or the wired-in heating, is the contributing to their high bills. Residential tenants may also have rights under the Residential Tenancies Act. The website of the Tenants Union of Victoria contains useful information about tenants’ rights.
High bills - actions energy and water companies should take
- Companies should respond to high bill concerns with swift and effective investigations.
- Companies should train staff in early identification of customers in financial hardship.
- Companies should empower staff to negotiate long-term, sustainable payment plans.
Companies should act on the customer’s first contact to investigate billing concerns quickly and effectively
Customers shouldn’t have to contact EWOV for answers to their high bill concerns, but many find they need to. In the July – September 2012 quarter, we recorded 2,385 high bill cases – 1,814 of these were handled as Assisted Referrals and 210 as Investigated Complaints. This means 2,024 customers had already tried to resolve the issue with their company directly and unsuccessfully.
Too often we’re told by customers that, when they rang their company about a high bill, their concerns were largely dismissed—the response was that the bill was based on a meter reading, was correct and just had to be paid. It’s clear that some companies could be doing much more to address high bill complaints on the customer’s first contact. Staff should be required to help customers with information and proper explanations. They should be given the tools and account information they need to do that—and the capacity to co-opt further expertise when it’s required.
Companies should train their staff to be able to identify and assist customers in financial hardship
We know that high bill complaints are often linked to affordability issues. It may be that one high bill arriving out of the blue upsets a finely-tuned tight, but otherwise manageable, financial situation. Perhaps the customer hasn’t paid the full amount of a previous bill. It may be that their situation has changed due to employment issues. Perhaps things have gradually worsened for them financially.
Companies should focus on early identification of customers in hardship—this includes having early conversations with customers to discuss affordability and payment options before hardship becomes long-term. Front line staff must be equipped and trained to respond to customers experiencing financial difficulty, or who have special circumstances. Staff should proactively offer payment options and, as appropriate, hardship program support — a payment plan, energy efficiency advice, information on government support (the Utility Relief Grant; concessions), referral to a financial counsellor. We can’t stress enough the importance of long-term and successful payment plan negotiations between companies and their customers.
Companies should alert customers to possible billing problems
It’s common for EWOV to receive high bill complaints that have their origin in billing system changes—bills are delayed; concessions aren’t applied; tariffs change. If there’s a possibility that changes within a company’s billing system will affect the bills of its customers, it should warn them and otherwise take action to ensure customers aren’t disadvantaged.
High bill case study: Customer's insistence (and persistence) pays off (2012/5781)
High bill case study: It was the customer's usage (2012/16779)
The customer’s quarterly electricity bills ranged between $274 and $925. When, in July 2012, he received a bill for $1,461, he rang his electricity retailer to query it. He said he was told the meter was working properly, the bill was correct and had to be paid. He said there was no offer to discuss the matter further with him. When his next bill was still high at $817.61, he contacted EWOV, seeking a high bill investigation. The customer maintained his appliances and consumption patterns hadn’t changed. He agreed to pay the latest bill and $600 towards the disputed July 2012 bill.
Contacted by EWOV, the electricity retailer undertook an internal investigation. From this, it advised that a Smart Meter had been installed at the customer’s property in December 2010. A meter test in March 2012 showed it was operating within Australian Standards. It said the disputed July 2012 bill was based on actual meter data provided by the distributor. The retailer also reviewed the daily meter data for the customer’s property. The retailer’s review revealed a pattern of high consumption around the Christmas/New Year period and on weekends.
Our investigation included a thorough analysis of the information provided by the retailer—the customer’s historical consumption, meter data, contact screens, account history and invoices. We found no error on the retailer’s part. We did, however, find that the customer’s higher electricity consumption coincided with temperature increases. We also found that his property was connected to three phase power, which may not be necessary for his needs. We advised him to consider an in-home display to help him monitor his usage and seek further advice from an electrician.
The complaint was resolved when the customer accepted the retailer’s offer of a one-off account credit of $289. The customer was given time to pay the arrears of $572.88. He was satisfied with this outcome.