A good old fashioned undercover investigation by The Times newspaper and British Gas is paying the reputation price for failing to monitor its supply chain.
In this instance, Arvato, their debt collection agency has been breaking into people’s homes (albeit with a warrant) to forcibly install pay-as-you-go meters in the homes of those who have failed to pay their gas and electricity bills. If the meter isn’t topped up by the customer, the heating will cut off. Since energy companies aren’t allowed to disconnect residential customers, customers are effectively self-disconnecting and the energy company saves money.
This is a practice that the regulator, OFGEM, says should only ever be a last resort. And it should never occur when customers are in a vulnerable situation (defined as being a pensioner, having a disability, being pregnant or with children under five). The investigation shows that Arvato has ignored this. Possibly because debt agents were bonused on the number of such fittings.
But there are two companies at fault here. British Gas has been quick to suspend Arvato’s work and has worked to the communications playbook. A statement read: “This is not who we are – this is not how we do business”; the CEO was immediately on the Today Programme expressing his horror and saying he was responsible for the behaviour of its contractors as well as employees. So far so good.
An investigation may well see them end their relationship with Arvato but their internal processes or a business decision meant they did not comply with a government request to cease force-fitting. Will managers be sacked for failing to monitor Arvato adequately or explain why they decided not to comply with government request? And as with American tech company CEOs saying that they are taking ‘full responsibility’ for hiring too many people whom they are now making redundant, what does that actually mean? Will British Gas CEO, Chris O’Shea, be giving meaning to his words about being accountable and resign?
Maybe there are good reasons why he should not. But if so, maybe it is time that Comms advisers stop CEOs making bland statements about taking responsibility without explaining just what they mean by that. #justsaying