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The curious tale of SSE and the misplaced Which? research

SSE say they’ll be appealing their mis-selling convictions, saying their sales processes are ‘fair and responsible’. But we discovered what we think is misleading marketing material about a Which? energy survey…

It all started with an eagle-eyed Which? reader taking a stroll around his local Marks & Spencer.

M&S is currently in partnership with SSE to sell energy tariffs and give its customers benefits in the form of M&S vouchers.

But our intrepid reader wasn’t deal-hunting, he was just perusing their literature when he saw what he thought was a mistake: ‘Which? members rate M&S Energy the best!’

He’d read the most recent Which? energy satisfaction survey and knew that SSE didn’t come out top at all, but fourth.

Misleading marketing tactics

So why were they claiming first prize? Well, after a tip-off from our reader we went in hunt of SSE reps in local Marks & Spencer stores.

We eventually uncovered the get-out clause. In the small print at the bottom of the leaflet, SSE had pointed out that they’d cherry-picked their information – they simply meant they were ‘the best out of the Big Six energy companies’.

Is that fair? Well, perhaps in a world where everyone dons a deerstalker, picks up a magnifying glass, and scrutinises the small print on every in-store marketing promotion. But in this world – the real world – we think it’s pretty misleading.

Greedy companies cashing in?

Jenny Driscoll, senior campaigner at Which?, says the judgement on SSE should be a wake-up call to all energy companies:

‘This isn’t the crime of the century but it’s one of many incidents that leave consumers confused and misled. Too many energy companies now have mis-selling fiascos attached to their names which is leaving the industry with a really, really bad reputation.

‘The result is that most people don’t trust energy companies, thinking they’re “as bad as each other”. Every week newspapers dish out headlines of sky-high energy prices and greedy companies cashing in. The companies complain that they don’t (always) deserve this kind of bad press. Maybe. But if they are breaking the law to make a quick sale, who can blame the journalists for writing the stories and the public for reading them?’

So what will SSE do now?

They may have to pay a fine for their doorstep crime, and will be appealing, but there’s no legal obligation for them to do anything for M&S Energy customers. Well, we think they should compensate any customers who feel they were misled by the marketing claims.

SSE have now withdrawn the offending marketing material. But is it enough? Do you agree that customers should be compensated as well? And are you one of the unlucky few who has been led astray by SSE’s claim that we’d rated them top?

Dr.Norman White says:
28 May 2011

When buying cars, new kitchens or, perhaps any costly item, why are the contract terms always hidden on the back of the order form?
This must be signed to say you have read and will abide by these terms which can only be seen after signature.

James Cole says:
28 May 2011

What is an SSE?

Hi James, SSE is Scottish and Southern Energy, one of the Big Six energy suppliers.

It is possible that I was mis-lead by Which?’s report on SSE once, or possibly they have fallen in the ratings. I left British Gas as my Gas supplier about 5 years ago, because of their indescribably (in polite words) attitude to direct debits and what I would call deceitful Direct Debit claims for my money. I won’t go into detail here as it is not what this thread is about, but I looked for a new supplier by looking at Which?’s reports at that time and I believed that SSE came out top for Customer Service at that time. (I wasn’t interested in value for money or anything else I just wanted good customer service after several years of dire service from BG). I swapped to SSE and to be honest I can’t complain; they didn’t cause me any hassles, but I left them and moved to Ecotricty on Ethical grounds as soon as Ecotricity, from whom I already bought my electricity, started to do gas.
This story has made me wonder whether I was taken in at that time or not? However, in fairness to SSE, if I was taken in, it was due to the way Which? presented the information, because I only looked at WHich? and not at the supplier’s own PR materials.

Hi Dave,
The Which? surveys have shown that SSE have often been the best performer of the big six energy suppliers, which is something we have reported over the years. However, the problem here was that we discovered that SSE had manipulated a Which? customer satisfaction survey so they appeared at the top of the table and was using this to sell its services through M&S Energy. It was only in a small footnote that SSE made any attempt to explain the information it had selectively edited from our survey. We believe their publication was misleading and a breach of consumer protection regulations. The last Which? survey showed that SSE had in fact come fourth with a customer score of 56% compared to Utility Warehouse who scored 77%, Ovo Energy with 77% and Ebico with 72%.

We are concerned about questionable sales tactics being used by energy companies to get a sale ‘no matter what’. This is an opportunity for SSE to do the right thing by saying that it will clamp down on this type of marketing and compensate customers who may feel they were misled.

Mis-selling is mis-telling under duress using spurious details when least wanted, by people who purport to be better than this but use those least able to discern the merits of honest sales or selling for a miserly wage packet.

If companies enjoy being labled like this, what does it say about their product? Cheap, cheaper or not.

I was recently approached in M&S Norwich by someone offering cheaper energy in a more environmentally-responsible way. Judging by their uniform and display stand I was sure the person was an M&S employee. We talked for several minutes but not once was Southern Energy mentioned; no tariff details were available but, from my answers to his questions about my current monthly dual-fuel charges, the rep assured me that M&S Energy was bound to be substantially cheaper on a like-for-like basis. Due to lack of time I didn’t complete the form or sign up for anything but looked it up on the internet after returning home – very difficult to find it on the M&S website incidentally; now I know why! I discovered that the company actually behind all this is Southern [part of the Scottish & Southern Energy group] and that M&S is just a front luring you in with their brand reputation and positive asociations with environmental responsibility. Because energy prices vary a lot geographically [I don’t know why in such a small densely-populated country], I had to fill in a lot of personal details in order to get an estimate of annual energy costs. This enabled me to make comparisons, which I also did using Which?Switch and U-Switch. My research showed conclusively that my existing supplier was far more economical for our situation than M&S Energy but I was annoyed to find Southern Energy was then e-mailing me as though I had agreed to transfer to them and they were executing the switch by contacting my current supplier [pun intended]. This all had to be unscrambled. Marks & Spencer played no part in this activity at all, merely [in exchange for commission I suppose] hosting the sales operation and lending it their good name. I could not see any particular advantages – “green” or otherwise – in going with M&S energy that would compensate for the higher charges and the general inconvenience of changing supplier [despite what Which?likes to make out, it’s never trouble-free and simple is it? – there’s always a hiccup over meter reaadings or the billing or the tariff or the meter number]. So beware the charge of the light brigade.

Samantha Norwich says:
7 June 2011

I had a very good experience when joining M&S Energy in Norwich, the lady told me the truth and backed it up with unit prices. So perhaps this man is just one of those people who spend their life complaining uneccesarily about everything when he didnt ever intend changing supplier in the first place.

I am in no doubt that the sort of practice that SSE have been engaging in is just one stop short of pressure sales (and misleading ones at that). I have watched the reps at work at M and S (indeed they even approached me once but quickly backed off when I gave them chapter and verse on my energy usage of both gas and electricity and that I benefited from an online tariff). Elderly and less well informed members of the public can quickly be taken in by this type of sales, and quite frankly M and S should not be allowing this sort of activity on their premises. Typically I go to M and S to shop for clothes or food, and I find it really irksome to have to run the gauntlet of these people who typically position themselves right by the main entrance door. With the exception of the Royal British Legion, I view them in the same way as the charity collectors who position themselves in front of you as you enter or leave a store.

Fat Sam, Glos says:
3 June 2011

Ohm my god, I’m quite shocked. Watt are SSE playing at? No wonder it was met with resistance. To think they had amp-le time and the potential to go with the current strap-line, “This isn’t just any energy… this is M&S energy!”

In the meantime, I hope this judgement hertz. Nothing like generating a bit of negative publicity. Guilty as charged.

Top of the ‘bill’ for creative comments, Sam

These are nearly as good as your fish puns Sam 😉 But I think I’ll pull the plug on them before they lose their spark…

Ha ha, cheers. I re-fuse to give up!

Samantha Norwich says:
7 June 2011

I recently joined M&S Energy in the Norwich M&S Store. I cannot praise the service enough for the first time in many years changing suppliers I was told the truth and given the unit prices. The lady did not claim to be saving me huge amounts of money infact it was hardly any difference but I was keen to get some free vouchers and I got a £40 cheque to use after 6 months. Its also very easy with all the work done by the lady in M&S so its been the easiest transfer ever. There was no hard sell I was given the prices and all the neccesary to make an informed choice. I would recommend it to anyone.

I have been with SSE in the past (technically, it was Atlantic, before they got taken over) and they were great. But that was because *I* chose them – not the other way round.

The only problem I have with most sales people is that I simply don’t trust them! How do I know they’re offering me even their best tariff? How do I know the ‘savings’ they claim aren’t from some theoretical scenario that is so far removed from my own situation? How do I know the figures they use of their competitors aren’t selectively chosen?

Well, it’s because I live in the UK so, naturally, I am sceptical as sharp practice is treated as a national sport by most businesses here. If it were an Olympic event we’d win it hands down.

I prefer to go to a well-known Energy comparison site, whack in my annual usage and click ‘submit’ and see what comes up.

Better still if you then go direct through a well-known cashback site too 🙂

Charlie Busby says:
9 November 2015

SSE constantly send out marketing material to my office today I received 11 brochures all exactly the same. How can I stop this? I have called them several times to remove our details as we are not a customer in this area although we do use them elsewhere. The service is poor from the call centre when we have dealt with them elsewhere too as they struggle to understand that we are not responsible for the bills.