British Gas: when web apps go bad, people come good

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 31, 2013
I was flabbergasted when British Gas dealt with a holiday problem courteously and efficiently after its web app let me down

In the past few days, I have enjoyed a positive customer experience at the hands of British Gas.

For many UK readers, that statement will seem remarkable — the following excerpt written by my diginomica colleague Stuart Lauchlan back in 2009 gives a taste of how poorly the firm has historically performed:

I've said it before and I'll say it again — British Gas is the most customer-indifferent and frankly openly hostile company in the UK. I had a similar 'apology' call from them this week in reply to my complaint from last week which went exactly the same way. A vague set of noises that didn't actually say sorry, only that they were sorry that they'd had to call me up and deal with a complaint.

In contrast, my experience in the past few days between Christmas and New Year has been an object lesson in effective customer service. Who'd have thought?

What's even more notable is that it was the customer service center and the engineer that delivered my positive customer experience.

Defective web app

It had all started out with a malfunctioning gas heater compounded by a defective web application when I went to log a service call. The machines were failing, and I had no reason to imagine British Gas had people standing ready to put things right.

Being a UK holiday, December 26th is never a good time to report a fault. With severe storms, flooding and power outages across the country, 2013 has proven even worse for many. By comparison, an intermittent fault on one of my gas heaters was not a big deal, even though it was the one that serves as the centerpiece of the family living room.

Fortunately, we have the Internet for precisely this kind of eventuality. The machines can take care of the routine service bookings while whatever holiday staff are on duty can concentrate on the life-and-death emergencies. I got out my iPad Mini and signed into my online British Gas account to log the fault and book a service call.

Problems ensued when I went to pay the call-out charge, which completes the booking. Although I had ticked just one 'fire' icon (as shown in the screengrab), the web app insisted on billing me for three call-out charges. This was clearly some kind of bug in the app due to my having three heaters on the service contract. Hoping that this would be corrected when the engineer called, I continued on to payment, where I encountered a second problem.

Finding my card declined, on investigation I realized that the web form was changing the last digit of my card number to a zero whenever I moved to another field. There was no way I could complete the transaction unless I used a payment card that happened to end in zero — which I don't possess.

With no workaround available and unable to find a non-emergency number to speak to an agent, I filled out a report in the online contact form with little expectation of a reply. I resolved to try the call center once people had got back to work the following day.

Special attention

Imagine my surprise when at 10 the next morning, the phone rang and I picked up to discover it was British Gas responding to my web form message. Craig from customer support apologized for the problems I'd had, booked an engineer call for the next working day at a time of my choosing, proposed a modest but welcome rebate on my bill for the inconvenience I'd suffered, and asked if I would mind explaining the problem to the online helpdesk so they could investigate.

Frankly I was flabbergasted. This was astonishing service by any standards, let alone from a normally faceless utility company notorious for relentlessly ramping up prices for its customers while posting billions in profits.

My immediate reaction was that this surely can't be standard treatment and perhaps I was singled out for special attention because the CRM system had flagged me up for my social media profile. I have no way of knowing, but it says a lot for the ingrained brand perception that I immediately sought to find an alternative explanation other than that this is actually how British Gas really does treat its customers now.

When I spoke to the helpdesk later on, I realized that the credit card number problem was only occurring on my iPad mini, which I have not yet upgraded to iOS 7, whereas it worked fine on upgraded iPads and on my PC. This has been logged along with the multiple call-out charge problem, which it seems could be partly due to incomplete data entered by the service team — but as I pointed out, it still means the web app doesn't work as intended.

To complete the story, the engineer called promptly at the appointed time on Monday and has resolved the fault. The family living room was warm and cosy once more, in good time to see the New Year in.


The moral that I take away from this story is that, however much you automate a process, you still need human beings available for those times when the automated process breaks down. Not only did British Gas rescue what might have become a miserable and frustrating customer experience, it also got useful feedback that it can use to resolve issues with its online service call logging and payment system.

As for the other moral —  can a leopard change its spots? — perhaps after all there is a glimmer of hope for British Gas in this seasonal tale of customer goodwill.

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