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The word that Genesis cannot say


Time for a change, or how I parted company with my energy supplier

By Lindsay Shelton

Genesis Energy lost credibility with me last year. The experience persuaded me that I wanted to switch to another of Wellington’s energy suppliers. It was only inertia (the same inertia that apparently stops people changing banks) that stopped me making the break immediately.

A few weeks ago a cheerful stranger knocked on my front door. He brought a proposal to save me money. It was also my chance to get rid of the energy company which I had learned to distrust.

My bad experience began in March last year, when Genesis wrote telling me that I was being switched to a “Lifestyle Plan” for my gas supply. The plan, wrote Genesis, had “a higher daily fixed charge but offers a lower variable charge.” Not bad to be offered a lower rate, I thought.

The information came with a table, so that I could compare my old and new prices. I made the comparison. There was a problem. The table showed that the new variable charge was higher, not lower, than the old one.

I phoned the Genesis call centre, from where Marie told me she would call back within 48 hours; she agreed it seemed a mistake had been made and she indicated that an apology would follow. All sounded hopeful. A day later, I was called by Gloria. She said the issue had to be referred to the complaints department. This would take another seven days.

I still felt confident that I would get the lower variable rate. There didn’t seem to be any way that Genesis could deny the offer had been made.

Next came a phone call from a third Genesis person. This was Hayley, a “customer service professional – resolutions”. Hayley followed her call with a letter, promising to resolve my complaint as quickly as possible. Then came a silence of two weeks, so I wrote back to her, asking what was happening and reminding her that I looked forward to receiving the lower variable charge. She wrote again, saying she would contact me within another 13 days – either with her findings, or to explain why more time was needed. Twenty-one days later, I received a third letter. My complaint was still under investigation. The Genesis legal department was now involved.

Thirty-nine days after my first call to Genesis, came a final letter from Hayley. Genesis had reviewed its original letter. Genesis agreed the wording was confusing. In future correspondence it would ensure that things were made clear. It apologized for any inconvenience. It would give me a credit of $30 off my next invoice, as a gesture of goodwill. It hoped that this clarified the issues which I had raised. It didn’t offer me the lower variable charge. It didn’t even mention this subject.

At the same time, Genesis wrote to the Commerce Commission, accepting that its letter to me had not been clear. But confusion, said Genesis, did not meet the threshold of misleading or deceptive conduct and “we strongly deny a breach of the Fair Trading Act.” Genesis explained that its marketing materials were subject to a comprehensive signoff process. “The issue with this price change letter was that approved wording was used but in a different context, which subsequently created the confusion,” said the letter, confusingly. “We have made changes to our signoff policy to ensure this does not happen again.”

At this point, I knew that I wanted to end my agreement with Genesis. But time passed.

Eighteen months later, leaflets from other energy companies were arriving in my letterbox, though they weren’t persuasive enough to make me change.

Then came the knock on my door.

My visitor was a Nova Gas representative. What’s Nova Gas, I asked. Nova Gas turned out to be a Todd Energy company which was offering significant savings for gas and electricity supplies.

I was ready to sign, even before I’d been shown the lower prices.

The salesman seemed to be on to a good thing in my part of Wellington. He indicated that many of his calls were leading him to homes where power and gas was supplied by Contact Energy, whose customers had a level of dissatisfaction much higher than mine. I had merely been the recipient of an offer which Genesis had no intention of delivering. Contact customers had to put up with the reported greed of Contact’s Board members in wanting to lift their fees to an average of $250,000 a year at the same time as they announced a ten per cent price increase, something which the outgoing Prime Minister described as extortion.

If every Contact customer was ready and willing to change, then as a disappointed Genesis customer, I was ready to change as well.

After I signed my agreement with Nova, I waited to see whether Genesis would make any attempt to keep me. Was I really a valuable customer, as they’d claimed in a letter?

Genesis phoned the house when I wasn’t at home. They wanted to know why I was leaving them, and they said they’d ring me back. But they never called again.

Instead came a half-hearted letter. “We’ve heard that you’re thinking about switching your energy account to another energy retailer,” wrote the general manager retail from a Hamilton address. He listed six “great” reasons to stay which would “help make life that little bit easier.” One of the reasons: “Loads of ways to pay your bill each month.” Another reason: “Great advice on energy efficiency to help reduce your energy bill.” There was nothing about pricing, nothing to acknowledge that their competitor was offering better deals. In other words: no reason to reconsider.

I threw the letter away, and felt happy to be free of such a mealy-mouthed power supplier.

The other day I heard some more from Genesis.

“Your electricity prices are changing,” they wrote, apparently not having noticed that I had sacked them. “Your prices change because our’s do. But one thing that will never change is our promise to be fair.”

Genesis may have promised to make things clear. But they weren’t delivering on their promise. Prices are changing. Prices have been reviewed. But they couldn’t bring themselves to say that prices are going up.

Their charts add to the confusion. I waded through the table giving a “full breakdown of prices” but there was no chance to make a comparison with the old rates, which weren’t mentioned.

Over the page however was another table, called “your new prices.” It has four columns, which make it possible – almost – to work out that prices are being increased again. But Genesis can’t resist being obscure. It provides only one column for “current prices” which excludes gst and doesn’t list the rates after the ten per cent discount for prompt payment. Then it provides three columns with three different versions of its new prices, two of them including gst and one of them including the discount. From this you discover the truth which Genesis was unable to speak: Genesis is putting its prices up again, though it can’t bring itself to say so.

If Genesis had learnt to speak clearly and not evasively, and if it hadn’t made an offer which it wasn’t willing to deliver, it might not have lost me as a customer. But by the time it advised me – even if obscurely - of its latest price increase, I had signed with another company, whose terms were cheaper than the old Genesis rates, and even better when compared with the increased ones.

9 December, 2008


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