Big Companies Have Too Much Power Over the Customer

If you search online “do corporations have too much power”, results are dominated by Unites States sources. It’s as if the debate hasn’t even started in the UK. Perhaps it should.

There are examples of the disproportionate power of corporations over individuals all around us. Every day, thousands of people spend miserable hours commuting on overcrowded trains that are often delayed or cancelled.

There is little the passengers can do; the privatisation has maintained or even enhanced the monopoly that companies have over their stretches of rail. Complaining doesn’t work, either. Those who complain receive standard replies, and the issues are never solved.

Not just in rail transport, in utilities as well the power that corporations wield over their customers is way too great. Take British Gas — a company whose CEO Iain Conn received a £4.15 million pay package two years ago, according to various media reports.

A while ago, I tried to pay my electricity bill with my card online, like numerous other people do. I typed in my card details and the amount, and waited for the payment to be taken. Instead, a message appeared saying there was an error and I should try again later.

I tried again, and received the same error message. I tried again — around five times; I really wanted to pay my bill! – before deciding to call the company the next day and pay by telephone. However, I checked my bank account to make sure that it took no payment from me; to my horror, I noticed that it had taken all those payments – a grand total of around £250.

I immediately called British Gas customer service, only to be told to call my bank and ask it to stop the payments, even though the mistake was the energy company’s. The British Gas representative was adamant that the company could not reimburse me immediately (although it had probably been less than an hour since the money was taken out of my account) and that only my bank could sort this out, by stopping the payment from leaving my account.

I called my bank, but no luck. They said that if it wasn’t fraud – which it wasn’t, it was just negligence on the part of British Gas – they could not stop these payments from going through. Some £250 out of pocket, I called British Gas customer services again, asking for my money back.

A company representative said the best they could offer was to send me a cheque, which would arrive in a couple of weeks and would take another week or so to clear. He also implied that this was all my fault for trying to pay after I received the first error message – I should have waited, rather than tried again, he said.

I asked why the company did not warn people about this when the error message occurs online, rather than taking their money five times, but was told that customer service cannot answer this question.  To have an answer to this, he said, I should log on online and attempt to find someone on a chat board to complain to about the online service: it was a separate department and customer service could not help.

I had already spent two hours trying to sort out this British Gas mistake, so I asked to be sent a letter explaining why the error occurred, why customers were not warned not to make multiple attempts to pay online, and why British Gas was unable to reimburse me immediately, just as it had been able to take the money on the spot.

I was hoping that by making them explain all this in a letter, they would see that this is an unfair way to treat a customer, and would correct things not just for me but for other customers as well. But the letter never arrived. Instead, I received a reimbursement cheque in a couple of weeks, which cleared in another week or so.

A British Gas representative later sent me a text message saying that if they don’t hear from me in 14 days, they will “assume I am happy for them to close the complaint.” I replied saying I’d never received the letter that British Gas had promised and I wanted the complaint to remain open. I said I would like to include the company’s point of view in this article and would wait for their reply.

The British Gas representative said: “I’m looking into this now and will be in contact with you shortly.” This was one month and two days ago; that was the last I heard from British Gas.

While this may look like a trivial matter, it actually is not. The fact that a company can just take money off a customer in a matter of seconds through an error entirely of the company’s fault, but reimburse that customer in three weeks’ time shows an environment that is heavily tilted in favour of the big corporation. If the law allows this, the law allows the unfair treatment of the customer.

Moreover, for that customer to make a complaint and get nowhere shows how little the big corporation is worried about the consequences of treating customers unfairly.

Looking for statistics to see how many complaints British Gas receives, I stumbled upon this chart, which shows that the number of complaints has plunged since the first quarter of 2015. If the company treats every customer the way it treated me, that’s no wonder: simply seeking to close the complaint without actually resolving it seems to be the winning ticket. For the big corporation, that is — not for the little guy.