Customer service on the continent

*How does customer service vary across Europe? We asked expats to compare utilities in their adopted countries with the service they used to receive at home. Compiled by Keith Nuthall.*

The European Union may be furiously trying to liberalise European utility markets and introduce a competitive level playing field, but Utility Week wondered how countries compared at the sharp end of customer service. Are billing and payment systems slicker in competitive markets? Are staff less courteous and services less accessible where national champions prevail? And how do prices compare?

Without conducting extensive international research, finding accurate and statistically significant answers to such questions is virtually impossible. So we have opted for a rough and ready test - the expats' assessment. Utility Week employs a network of contributors across Europe, and we polled those who are not native to the country they are working in to comment on their experience of dealing with energy and water suppliers - and how it compares with their experience at home.

Keith Nuthall is a freelance journalist.

*Belgium: better than the UK*

From the moment expats arrive on Belgium soil and try to register at the town hall, receive a compulsory identity card or join a healthcare scheme, they are likely to be entangled in red tape. But UK-born, Brussels-based reporter Philippa Jones says utility services are different.

"Belgium's utilities offer a welcome respite from these problems," she says. "The market is liberalised like in the UK, and in Brussels, to help us choose a supplier for our needs, we can simply log on to Brugel.com and compare prices between traditional utilities such as Electrabel - part of the French GDF group - and green energy suppliers such as Lampiris."

Water is supplied by different companies in different areas. "A quick email to supplier Viva Aqua gave us a prompt response from a real person with direct contact details. I'm not sure this would have been the case in the UK," Jones says. But she notes that Belgian suppliers' billing and debt collection systems can be far from slick, and customers run the risk of accruing big bills and late payment fines. "While UK utility companies may realise fairly quickly if bills are not being paid, Belgian utilities may wait a while to contact residents," she explains.

*Italy: liberalisation is working*

Liberalisation has profoundly changed Italy's utilities sector over the past decade. Lucca-based Australian writer Lee Adendorff says dealing with Italian service providers is not the nightmare it used to be. "Things like name changes or requesting a connection is actually quite easy and can be done over the phone or online," she says. "In general, I find operators to be knowledgeable and efficient with a highly computerised organisation. We recently got gas on our street after years of using LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] tanks, and while it took about a year for the work to be completed, the organisation was what I would expect from a UK or Australian provider."

One thing that hasn't changed much is the high price Italians pay for electricity. Together with Denmark, Italian consumers continue to pay the highest electricity tariffs in Europe.

*Frustration in France*

Reporter Monica Dobie, who was born in Canada and has lived in the UK, says French utilities are cheaper than in London but cost significantly more than her native Quebec. While she says energy is far better than France's phone companies, Dobie is less than delighted about the amount of red tape dealing with energy utilities generates.

"If I compare it to the country's horrid phone company [France Telecom] or internet firms, the ease of procedure is a relief," she says. "As a renter in Paris, the water bill is handled by the landlord - which is a godsend because it is one less piece of red tape to deal with. EDF's bill arrives promptly every month and as long as I am willing to wait for 50 minutes in a queue at the post office, it gets paid."

Proof of identity can be a bone of contention. Utilities tend to require a Relevé d'Identité Bancaire - a "statement of banking identity" issued by banks. Dobie says French companies "demand your first-born as insurance, and proving your identity results in oodles of paperwork, not to mention a copious amount of frustration".

*Perishing in Poland*

Although obviously not a concern for natives, American-born Warsaw-based writer Blake Berry found English-speaking customer service agents few and far between in Poland. "It's usually easier to beg or bribe a Polish friend into helping you sort the problem out," he jokes.

He says water in Warsaw is often included in ground rent paid to a building co-operative. Water meters are becoming more common, but often the rate is calculated solely based on the number of residents.

Electricity is usually contracted directly with the provider. "Theoretically the electricity market has been liberalised since 2007," says Berry, "but in practice I've not heard of anybody switching provider. It's complicated and hard to know beforehand if you'll actually be saving money."

He adds: "The weirdest thing for me is what's referred to as 'heating season' in Poland." Heating is often controlled by the co-operative or building manager, and according to Berry, the criteria for turning it on seems to have little to do with temperature. "Warsaw got hit by a freak snowstorm early this October, yet the heating - at my home as well as my office - wasn't turned on until several days later. In the meantime, we froze."

*Ireland: decent service but a high price*

While the Irish electricity market has been opened to competition since 2000 and there are a number of suppliers, semi-state-owned Electricity Supply Board (ESB) remains a dominant force. Natural gas is also widely available, although Bord Gais's network is centred on larger towns.

UK-born Neil Porter lives about 40 miles outside Dublin. He has had no problems receiving bills, changing his address or getting connected to the main services, but believes utilities are more costly than in England. "I think it is more expensive generally. There are a lot of things I'd assumed would be covered by income tax that appear to be privatised. For example, we pay £30 a month for someone to collect our waste," he says.

Porter heats his home with oil, as do most non-city based residents. He notes that power can be temperamental. "Electricity is a particularly good service, with regular bimonthly bills and all of them meter read rather than estimated," he says. "But at the same time we get more outages and the power goes off for a few hours at a time while they fix it. That might just be because we live in the country."

Author: Paul Newton,
Channel: Customers
Tags: ESB , Metering

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