The ESB waited more than two years and haemorrhaged nearly half of their customers before the regulator let them set their own prices. On Monday last they were finally allowed to compete with the companies that had been snatching away their business. It was expected that the biggest story in the nation would be the deregulation of the Irish electricity market, and there should have been analysis-paralysis of the newly launched Electric Ireland and their new cheaper prices.
The Electric Ireland launch was set for Monday April 4th and the press were given advance notice of their new prices on Sunday 3rd so they could get the story into the papers, on the radio and create some buzz around Deregulation Day. And D-Day is what it turned out to be for the ESB.
With all their careful preparation, it seems that there was still one thing that could throw a spanner in the works. It was what Conor Pope of the Irish Times called the elephant in the room. The ESB has 150,000 customers who are behind on their bills and would not be entitled to the new lower prices. Of course the ESB didn’t say that in their press release, but it didn’t take long to figure out, and it was a very rocky ride for the ESB and their PR team for the rest of the week.
On Monday morning, ESB Electric Ireland’s top communications guy Brian Montayne, was doing the morning radio shows. On Morning Ireland, things started out well and he was able to talk about what a great day it was for the ESB, how they’d finally been granted the freedom to compete and they were now able to offer discounts of up to 17%. He was also happy to explain what customers had to do to get the top discounts.
Then Mr Montayne was asked some very prickly questions like - “If you're in arrears, you don't get any discount on anything?” and “So you have to be up to date?” and “How many customers do you have in arrears?” Then questions of fairness came up. Mr Montayne maintained that the ESB was being very fair, but there’s no spinning you way out of denying discounts to 150,000 hard pressed customers.
Next it was on to Newstalk for more questions about customers behind on their bills not being eligible for discounts. What should have been the “Electric Ireland now cheapest electricity supplier in Ireland!” story, turned into the “ESB meanies won’t cut a break for 150,000 customers”.
A story about cash strapped households in difficulty with their bills being denied discounts by a behemoth corporation is much meatier than a story about price cuts, and it has tons of human interest. Of course the media was going to run with it.
Deals for customers that pay on time
The thing is that ESB Electric Ireland did nothing unusual. It’s standard practice amongst energy suppliers, and amongst most businesses to give the deals to the prompt paying customers. If you have bad credit and want a credit card, you’re going to pay very high interest and lots of fees - that's if they'll give you a card at all. If you’ve got great credit, you’ll be given a nice shiny Platinum card with a high credit limit and a low interest interest rate. It’s really that simple and that’s all the ESB was doing.
Nobody’s claiming that the ESB is a benevolent organisation, but if you’re behind in your bills, you’re lights will stay on longer with the ESB than with any other electricity supplier. For those 150,000 arrears customers, the ESB does all sorts of things to help them stay connected and catch up on their bills including payment plans and household budget schemes. Even after all that, it can still take up to four billing cycles before ESB wields the axe. Another electricity supplier operating in Ireland is well known for cutting off customers in less than half that time, and they certainly don't offer their best deals to their arrears customers.
The arrears story continued throughout the week with numerous print features and loads of radio fodder for the talk shows. But as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity and even though this was a horrible start to deregulation for ESB Electric Ireland, there isn’t a soul in the country that doesn’t now know that you can get cheaper prices from the ESB.
So, then the big question remains… Is ESB Electric Ireland now offering good deals?
And the answer is yes. Absolutely.
So much so that Airicity felt they needed to push out a statement saying that “Electric Ireland is a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” and that their products “simply imitate” Airtricity’s offerings. Airtricity went on to say that they “offer all gas and electricity customers the most competitive and greenest deals on dual fuel gas and electricity discounts”.
I’m glad to see Airtricity issuing rambunctious statements claiming to be the most competitive, even if it’s not entirely accurate. I’m also glad to see the ESB offering much cheaper prices even if you have to jump through a few hoops to get them.
Now that the ESB has finally been allowed to join in, we have three electricity suppliers competing for our business. And we like good prices and competition in Ireland. So much so that we’ve switched a million times over the last two years. We’re not just big switchers. As a country, we’re actually the biggest switchers in the world and with Electric Ireland in the mix, that's not likely to change any time soon.