Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ghastly Gas Bills

The gas bill plopped into The Informed Consumer’s inbox recently.
Prompt Payment Reminder

Dear Informed Consumer,
A quick reminder that if you pay your latest Gas bill by 01 Feb 2010 you will qualify for a prompt payment discount* on your next bill.

The easiest way to pay and receive your prompt payment discount is to log on to your online account to pay your bill, or go to and enter your Customer Reference Number and payment details.
Thank you for choosing British Gas. We’re delighted you’re one of our customers [yes, so am I, now where’s my discount to show me how delighted you actually are?]
Yours sincerely

Tim Copper
Managing Director, Online

Now, if there’s something that The Informed Consumer likes, it’s money off something. Particularly when its been a rotten winter and the gas bill is sky-high. It was then that I noted that pesky little asterisk after the words “prompt payment discount”. Right at the bottom of the email, in considerably smaller print (in fact, it was so small that I had difficulty making it out and had to go find my glasses in order to peer short-sightedly at the screen), the asterisk revealed:
*Does not apply to all tariffs. If you are eligible we will tell you below the line which contains your 'please pay by date' on your next bill. See your next bill or visit for details.
Ah. This discount business is obviously slightly more complicated than I had thought. Not everyone gets it. And I can’t check whether or not I can get it because that bit of information will be on my next bill. I logged on to in order to investigate further, where I was told:
Which tariffs/long term contracts are not eligible for the Prompt Pay discount?
Price Protection Feb 2009
Price Protection April 2009
Price Protection 2010
Price Promise
Price Guarantee 2009
Price Protection 2009
Fixed Price 2010 (v1 & 2)
Price Guarantee 2009 Green
Fixed Price2011
Fixed Price2012

So, quite a few tariffs are excluded. Unfortunately, because my bill arrives online, nowhere does it state what tariff I’m on.

More information:
What is the Prompt Pay discount?
From 19 February we’re introducing a prompt payment discount for some customers on quarterly payment options. And eligible gas and electricity customers will have this discount applied to their next bill if they pay in full within 14 days of the bill date.
Note that sneaky “if they pay in full”.
Which payment options are eligible for the Prompt Pay discount?
Quarterly cash/cheque
Quarterly variable direct debit
Quarterly equal payments.
Whoa! Hold those horses! So the Prompt Pay discount is only available if you pay by those three methods. The only way I can pay a bill which is sent to me by email is by debit card. That final payment option means that you don't ever "pay in full" - the annual cost of your gas is averaged out over four separate quarterly payments.  The bill for the winter quarter won't be met by your quarterly payment - the unpaid balance is carried over and added to your spring bill.  When that payment goes through, it clears the remainder of the winter bill and deducts the rest from your spring bill, which is presumably a lot lower 'cos its got warmer outside in the interim.
What about online/paperless bills?The Prompt Pay discount applies to both paper and online/paperless bills.
Hang on, I’ve already mentioned that you can’t pay a paperless bill by cash or cheque, quarterly variable direct debit or quarterly equal payments (which are made by direct debit). So it was with glee that I sent them an email setting out the problem and finishing with:
“None of which payment options are open to me if I want to pay my entire quarterly bill all in one go online with my debit card. Which I imagine the very vast majority of your customers will want to do. So its rather pointless trumpeting in an email that I can receive a discount, isnt it, when the only payment options open to me are not ones that can be made by anyone receiving an online bill?”
At the bottom of the online enquiry form was written:

If you contact us by email, we'll get back to you within 3 days
Thank you for contacting us.
The automatic receipt for my question I got a minute or so later read:
Your complaint has been assigned to the Online Complaint Handling team to begin an immediate investigation and they will be in touch with you within the next 7 days.
So, not within 3 days then? Within 7.
Five days later the following dropped into my inbox.
"I have spoken to our Technical team and they are now in the process of updating our website to include all methods of payments. This update should be taking effect shortly [but not before all this quarter's bills have been paid, presumably - don't want everyone who pays online to be clamouring for their discount, do we?] and I am happy to email you again once this has gone live online. I would also like to thank you for bringing this issue to my attention to allow me to rectify our online information."
So, will all those customers who were actually entitled to receive their prompt payment discount but didn't claim it because they were under the impression that they couldn’t get it because they didn't pay by one of the three options listed (none of which are available to you if you get your bill online )get their discount? What do you think?

I emailed them back on this point and look forward to receiving their reply. Within 3 or 7 working days depending on what part of the website you happen to be reading at the time.

Oh, and what did the Prompt Payment discount turn out to be? The one that I got because I embarrassed them into admitting that their website information was out of date and potentially excluding all those thousands of customers from getting their discount?  £2.70. Its a small victory for The Informed Consumer. But a victory nonetheless.

And another thing.  To get my discount, British Gas told me that I would have to pay by 1st February.  Yet the website says:  From 19 February we’re introducing a prompt payment discount. So they're starting their discount scheme 18 days after the cut off point for making a payment.  Everybody's rushed to make their payments on time to get their discount.  But the discount scheme doesn't start until 18 days after the last date for payments to be made in order to receive the discount.  I emailed them about that, too.

BE AN INFORMED CONSUMER.  Always make time to go through the small print and challenge any seeming inconsistency in the "rules".  Which have been created by Them and which often turn out to be incredibly self-serving.

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