Energy company call centers bear the brunt of German anger over soaring bills

Energy company call centers bear the brunt of German anger over soaring bills

A shareholder carries a bag with the E.ON logo during the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Essen, Germany on May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen/File Photo

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BERLIN, Sept 16 (Reuters) – Germans, unhappy with rising electricity bills, are calling their suppliers en masse to express their displeasure.

E.ON customer service staff (EONGn.DE) and other energy providers say they have to handle a flurry of calls every day from people demanding to know why their bills have suddenly skyrocketed or how they can fund higher payments.

“We have more and more desperate customers in customer service centers,” said Ingbert Liebing, head of local utility organization VKU.

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“Some become aggressive out of frustration, others cry and need psychological support,” Liebing said.

As energy prices rose across Europe, as Russia cut gas supplies to the continent following the imposition of sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, German energy suppliers have passed on some of the cost of replacing Russian supplies to consumers.

Households with long-term contracts will also be hit by a new gas consumer levy effective October 1 to help suppliers fight rising import gas prices. read more

The utility E.ON, Germany’s largest energy supplier with about 14 million customers, said it has increased the capacity of its customer services to cope with a surge in requests as many consumers expect prices to continue to rise.

“Many people underestimate the scale of the energy crisis and the associated price increase in general,” Philip Ton, head of E.ON Energie Germany, told Reuters. The company now specially selected and trained customer service personnel and kept them up to date on the latest developments on a daily basis.

“Basic knowledge is just as important as empathy for each individual caller,” Ton said.

E.ON declined Reuters’ request to speak with customer service staff, citing a lack of resources.

“We don’t have spare capacity and we need every employee to answer calls, otherwise we won’t be able to answer customer calls,” a company spokesman said.

German households usually enter into annual contracts that guarantee a fixed price for their energy for a period, but many suppliers have already raised rates for some customers depending on their contracts.

Keeping customers informed about price increases is a challenge for utilities, says Kerstin Andrea, managing director of the Federal Energy and Water Industries Association.

“The fact that the energy companies are not the cause of the current situation is largely acknowledged, but the utilities are jointly and severally liable as carriers of bad news,” Andree added.

She said many affected customers often take out their anger and fears about rising prices for utility call center employees.

This requires patience on the part of employees, who have to explain price increases and increasingly help find bespoke solutions for customers who cannot pay their bills, such as interest-free installments. Turning off gas or electricity is usually a last resort.

Earlier this month, the German government announced a 65 billion euro ($65.08 billion) aid package to protect customers and businesses from soaring inflation. Berlin also plans to subsidize the base level of household electricity consumption to cushion price spikes. read more

However, almost 40% of Germans expect they will not be able or will face significant difficulties paying their electricity and gas bills this winter, a survey by broadcaster ARD showed on Thursday.

Providing energy saving tips and information about state support or credit options is another feature of the help desk in the current situation, said a spokesman for the local municipality of Essen.

($1 = €0.9988)

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Reporting by Tom Kakenhoff and Riham Alkusaa; writing by Riham Alkusaa; editing by Susan Fenton

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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