The Consumer Ombudsman has intervened in the availability of customer service at two electricity companies, as many customers have reported problems in reaching customer service. Helen has promised to improve the availability of customer service as required by the Consumer Ombudsman. As far as Vattenfall is concerned, the supervisory case is still ongoing.
The Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority and the Consumer Ombudsman´s Consumer Advisory Services received an increased number of messages, especially at the turn of the year, from consumers reporting many types of problems related to the availability of customer service by Helen: the telephone service was heavily congested, electronic customer channels were closed and the processing times of matters were considerably long. The situation persisted for several months, and some consumers were not able to manage their affairs on time.
”Without functional customer service, consumers cannot effectively exercise their rights and the company cannot fulfil its statutory obligations. With essential services, such as electricity, the companies need to pay particular attention to the functionality of customer service in multiple channels, and exceptional situations will further heighten this need.”
Customer service channels must be easy to find and use
Helen had also taken measures in its customer service that weakened customers’ chances of reaching the company. For example, Helen had reduced the opening hours of the telephone service. In addition, the customer service email address had been removed from the website even though even though the email address was active. This was likely to give the impression that customers could not contact the company by email.
Helen had an online contact form that, according to a report provided by the company, customers could use to perform tasks such as as exercising their right to withdrawal. However, the Consumer Ombudsman found that Helen had not placed the form in a location that would be appropriate for seamless customer service. The form was not available on the Helen website with their other contact channels. Instead, it was located on a separate Send Message page that could be accessed by clicking “Give feedback”. The website also did not make it clear whether the form could be used to manage affairs such as exercising consumer´s right of withdrawal under the Consumer Protection Act. Subsequently, for customers who were looking for contact channels on the Helen website, for example for making a complaint or exercising their right of withdrawal, the company offered the badly congested telephone service and a form that was not located with the other contact channels.
Promises of better customer service
According to the Consumer Ombudsman’s interpretation, the poor availability of Helen’s customer service was an unfair practice prohibited by the Consumer Protection Act. Helen undertook to implement the changes required by the Consumer Ombudsman, i.e. to ensure that customer service could be reached efficiently and through multiple channels by customers who had concluded a contract. Customer service channels must also be easy for customers to find and identify. Customers’ contacts to the provider, no matter which channel a customer uses, must be handled within a reasonable time and in such a way that the customer does not suffer any loss of rights due to the unavailability of customer service.
The Consumer Ombudsman also drew Helen’s attention to the fact that, due to the congested customer service, it is possible that not all customers have been able to exercise their rights, and these situations must be taken into account and handled appropriately.
The Consumer Ombudsman has a similar supervisory case ongoing with Vattenfall.