Energy company call centres bear brunt of Germans' fury at soaring bills

Almost 40 per cent of Germans assume that they will face significant difficulties in paying their electricity and gas bill. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN - Germans angry at surging energy bills are taking to calling up their suppliers in droves to vent their frustrations.

Customer service staff at E.ON and other energy suppliers say they are having to handle a barrage of calls on a daily basis from people demanding to know why their bill has suddenly jumped or how they will be able to finance higher payments.

"We increasingly have desperate clients in the customer service centres," said Ingbert Liebing, the head of local utilities organisation VKU.

"Some become aggressive out of frustration, others are in tears and need psychological support," Liebing said.

As energy prices across Europe have surged as Russia cut gas supplies to the continent in the wake of sanctions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, German energy suppliers are passing on some of the cost of replacing Russian supplies to consumers.

Households on long-term contracts will also be hit by a new levy on gas consumers coming into effect on Oct 1 aimed at helping suppliers struggling with soaring gas import prices.

Utility E.ON, the biggest energy supplier in Germany with around 14 million customers, said it had increased capacity at its customer services to deal with a spike in enquiries as many consumers expect prices to continue to rise.

"Many underestimate the extent of the energy crisis and the associated price increases overall," Filip Thon, head of E.ON Energie Germany, told Reuters. The company is now specially selecting and training customer service staff and briefing them daily on latest developments.

"Background knowledge is just as important as dealing with each individual caller with empathy," Thon said.

E.ON declined a request by Reuters to speak with its customer services employees, citing low resources.

"We have no free capacity and need every employee to take the calls, otherwise we would not be able to answer customer calls," a company spokesperson said.

German households usually are locked into annual contracts that guarantee a fixed price for their energy over the period, but many suppliers have already increased tariffs for some customers depending on their contracts.

Communicating to customers about soaring prices is a challenge for utilities, Kerstin Andreae, managing director of the Federal Association of the Energy and Water Industry, said.

"The fact that the energy companies are not the cause of the current situation is mostly recognised, but the utility companies are held jointly liable as the bearers of the bad news," Andreae added.

She said many affected customers often vent their anger and concerns about price developments at the employees in utilities' call centres.

This requires patience on the part of staff who are having to explain prices increases and, increasingly, help find individual solutions for clients who cannot pay their bills, such as interest-rate-free instalments. Shutting off their gas or electricity supply is usually the last resort.

Earlier this month, the German government announced a €65 billion (S$91.5 billion) aid package to shield customers and businesses from soaring inflation. Berlin also plans to subsidise a basic level of electricity usage for households to ease price jumps.

However, almost 40 per cent of Germans assume that they will not be able to or will face significant difficulties in paying their electricity and gas bill this winter, a survey by ARD broadcaster showed on Thursday.

Providing energy-saving tips and information on government support or credit options are another feature of the customer service job in the current situation, a spokesperson for Essen local municipality said. REUTERS

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