Why switching suppliers is worth the stress

It's all very well getting your investments right, but most of us are losing out by having the wrong broadband, the wrong mortgage or the wrong gas supplier. Merryn Somerset Webb looks at why now is the time to change.

It is all very well getting your investments right, but most of us are losing out by having the wrong mortgage, the wrong broadband and gas suppliers and the wrong savings accounts than we ever make from shares.

According to price-comparison site Simply Switch, the average family could save over £1,000 in 2007 just by switching their basic service providers.

Most of us know this especially after this newspaper explained the savings on offer last week (Business and Money, December 31) and gave tips on how to go about switching to a better deal. A few calls, you might think, and you'll be sorted. So why haven't we all done it already? Why do we need to constantly be nagged into doing something? Because the truth is that it isn't easy. Changing your gas supplier may sound straightforward but we all know it isn't. We are told it will just take one simple call but we can be pretty sure it won't: something will go wrong, it always does.

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Take the poor person who lives somewhere in my building and is trying to change his or her gas supply to British Gas. Just before Christmas I got a letter from Npower, my gas supplier. "We're sorry you're leaving us," it said, which was news to me.

Changing suppliers: customer service?

I have been on the phone to Npower and British Gas countless times ever since, letters have been exchanged and I have now been given the number of the ombudsman by someone at Npower who tells me that the firm can't stop British Gas from trying to move my account only British Gas can. (I wonder how many times the person who actually wanted to move their account has called both providers by now.)

I've had similarly trying problems with Orange, the mobile-phone company. After eight weeks with a broken phone, endless calls to the customer-services line, two visits to an Orange shop, one temper tantrum, one bout of tears, the delivery of a new Sim card that didn't work and the delivery of a new phone with a battery pack that didn't fit, I have given up and reclaimed an old phone that sort of works from the baby's toy box.

I will continue to use it until my resolve is once again strong enough to allow me to call Orange without breaking down.

I also have a chequebook, a Pin number and a variety of phone-banking passwords for the newly opened Lloyds TSB account of a Ms J Galang.

I've called Lloyds and explained that she doesn't live at my address, but her banking correspondence just keeps coming. I wonder how many times she has called Lloyds in tears trying to get her hands on a chequebook that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

The fact is that, almost without exception, customer-service staff are useless at providing any kind of customer service. Everyone I have spoken to at British Gas, at Npower and Orange has been utterly charming but not one of them has been able to actually sort out any of my problems.

Whether this is a matter of widespread personal incompetence or of hopelessly bad systems at the service providers I'm not sure although the latter is more likely.

The result is the same: I am loath to ever call a customer-service line for fear of getting caught up in another round of uselessly frustrating phone calls and soul-deadening administration.

Changing suppliers: how to overcome phone phobia

However, money saved is money saved, so I am trying to overcome my phone phobia. How? By thinking of it from the other side.

I've been working out what my time is worth per hour and then seeing if the time I might have to spend on the calls is worth the pain it will surely bring.

Say you take home £2,500 a month after tax. This makes your net hourly income about £14. Add on to this a few quid to take into account the fact that you should be paid more for speaking to customer services than for your usual job, and it makes your time worth £20 an hour.

Then assume you are ultimately successful in saving the planned amount of money and can still afford to spend about 50 hours the average annual saving of £1,000 divided by £20 on the phone listening to the words "your call is important to us" and explaining your personal circumstances.

Even in the very worst-case scenario I can't see changing gas, electricity and phone suppliers taking longer than that. And if you manage it quicker you'll be making a good profit.

So take a deep breath, visit one of the price-comparison sites (uswitch.com, for example) and get going. I haven't checked our suppliers since last year so I am going to do it this week, with the proviso that even if British Gas turns out to be the cheapest supplier for anything I am not moving to them, ever.

First published in The Sunday Times 07/01/07

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.