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8 Dec 2020

The energy firms keeping customers on hold for more than 120 rounds of 'Happy Birthday'

Boost, British Gas, Npower and Orbit Energy kept callers hanging on the phone for more than 20 minutes in our latest energy call waiting investigation

We all know how tedious singing two rounds of 'Happy Birthday' can feel when we're washing our hands for the recommended 20 seconds - so imagine having to wait the equivalent of 120 rounds or more while on hold to your energy supplier.

In our latest snapshot research into call waiting times in September and October 2020, pay-as-you-go energy supplier, Boost, was by far the slowest to pick up, taking just shy of 41 minutes on average (that's a monotonous 246 rounds of 'Happy Birthday'). One unlucky caller was left hanging on for two hours 39 minutes, while another four waited more than an hour.

Big energy providers British Gas and Npower, along with smaller firm Orbit Energy, kept customers hanging on the phone for a frustrating 20 minutes (120 'Happy Birthdays') or more on average before an agent picked up.

  • Don't put up with poor service. Find out how your company measures up for call waiting and overall satisfaction in our guide to the best and worst energy companies for 2020.
  • If it's time for a change, compare gas and electricity prices using Which? Switch to see if you can find a cheaper and better deal.

A further seven providers kept customers on hold for more than ten minutes on average. These included two other big providers, E.ON and EDF Energy.

Disappointingly, Which? Recommended Provider So Energy, the fastest to pick up in 2019, was one of these, taking just under 17 minutes on average.

So Energy blames this on a period when it was training new staff remotely, while also taking on new customers. While not fully resolved, it says wait times have now improved.

Along with other suppliers, we'll be reviewing the WRP status of So Energy when we have the full results from our annual energy survey in early 2021.

COVID-19 and customer service

There's no doubt COVID-19 has been a big challenge for customer contact centres. This includes our own member services centre.

Maureen Leonard, Which? business improvement manager, said service levels did drop at first while the right tech to get staff set up at home was introduced, but they're now back to normal.

She also highlighted the challenge of training new staff remotely, as well as the need to keep an eye on staff wellbeing and mental health.

But when we carried out our investigation in September and October 2020, customer service teams had months to adapt to new ways of working.

And some have evidently coped well. Together Energy, the fastest to pick up calls in our investigation, answered calls in 51 seconds, on average. Ampower managed to pick up in just over a minute.

And twelve more firms answered in less than five minutes. Use our chart, below, to compare companies at a glance, or visit our guide on the best and worst energy companies to look up exactly how long your supplier took to pick up the phone.

Energy companies: telephone response times compared

What the energy companies told us

We asked the companies who took more than 20 minutes on average to answer to explain why, and what they were doing about it.

  • Boost told us that more customers contacted it for support over the period of our research, and it has allocated additional resources to help cope during the winter.
  • British Gas said it has faced ongoing challenges with staff at international call centres (mainly in India and South Africa) working from home, including connectivity and broadband issues, combined with other local disruptions such as regular power cuts.It's recruiting more staff and supplying home workers with tech to help.
  • Npower, now part of the E.ON Group, said that a delay in correspondence going out to customers in September led to an increase in calls and, therefore, call waiting times.
  • Orbit recently launched its phone line and is about to move to a seven day a week service to help with increased demand over the winter. For a faster response, try Orbit's live chat service; we got a response to this in 1 min 15 secs on average.

From whether to opt for a fixed or variable energy tariff, to avoiding tariff exit fees, we explain everything you need to know about getting the best energy deal.

Phone call vs live chat

Woman frustrated about energy bill

The overall average median call pick up time for all 31 companies we called was 5 mins 57 secs.

If your supplier offers live chat, this could get you a faster response; companies that offered it replied in 3 mins 6 secs on average.

The fastest company to answer live chat queries, Outfox the Market, managed a response in an average of just 10 seconds. EDF Energy, which kept callers on hold for nearly 13 and a half minutes, answered live chat in 20 seconds, on average.

But it's not always the quickest option. Shell Energy answered its phone calls in a respectable average time of 4 mins 6 secs, but live chat had a disappointing average wait time of 33 mins 39 seconds when we tried the service.

Energy companies: live chat response times compared

Other ways of contacting your energy company

For those companies that didn't offer a live chat service, we sent emails or used the online contact form on the company website.

Times for a response ranged from an impressive average of just 45 minutes for E, to nearly five days for Ecotricity. However, Boost failed to respond to our emails 10 of 12 times within the seven day cut off period, and Powershop didn't respond to any of our 12 attempts.

Energy companies: email/online form response times compared

Don't put up with poor service; switching energy supplier can save you money and is usually a doddle. Visit our guide on how to switch energy supplier for more.