Southern Electric gas prices

Undercover video exposes dirty tricks of Britain's second biggest power provider, where staff are trained to exploit 'fear' of customers... and to hide the cost of switching 

Trainer Chris Simms (pictured, standing) told staff to 'exaggerate' customers' fearLast night regulator Ofgem said it would investigate the damning video and audio tapes we recorded during an extensive four-week investigation, saying: ‘We’re very concerned by these serious allegations and will conduct a thorough review of the evidence provided by The Mail on Sunday. Energy suppliers have a duty to treat customers fairly when selling energy.’

SSE, which makes £3million profit a day, immediately suspended its training contractor, Pareto Law, admitting some of the advice it was drilling into staff was ‘clearly inappropriate’.

Our dossier of evidence was compiled by an undercover reporter, who posed as a trainee salesman at SSE’s Cardiff call centre and discovered that:

  • According to staff, hard-up customers were persuaded to accept prepayment meters – which denied them access to the best deals – on false pretences;
  • Staff were told that although personal sales incentives were banned because they encouraged mis-selling, they could instead compete for ‘team targets’ worth up to £2, 000;
  • Staff were taught to carry out secret ‘personality tests’ on customers, branding them as Doers, Actors, Friendlies or Thinkers (DAFT).

MPs on the Commons Energy Committee reacted furiously to our revelations last night. Tory Glyn Davies said: ‘Any action by an energy company to improperly frustrate the switching process is indefensible.

‘It’s outrageous and they should not be behaving like the Wolf of Wall Street.’

Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael described the revelations as ‘explosive’ and said: ‘Ofgem needs to crack down on this sort of sharp practice. The Energy Committee should look at whether this is an isolated example or if SSE are just the ones who got caught.’

Johnny Allen (pictured) starred in the BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary The Call CentreThe Government forced energy companies to make switching easier two years ago after a series of mis-selling scandals involving all the so-called Big Six – British Gas, SSE (formerly Scottish and Southern Energy), EDF Energy, E.On, Scottish Power and npower. SSE was fined £10.5million for ripping off up to a million customers.

CON 2: KEEPING FEE HIDDEN

MoS reporters asks Gavin Sorley (GS), a Scottish manager on secondment, if they should tell customers it could cost them £100 to switch to SSE.

GS: No. Can you imagine if we done every single call and every single customer had an exit fee and we told them...can you imagine?

Trainee: They won't come

GS's colleague Joss: We don't have to flag that. If they don't mention anything about exit fees then it can't be our fault.

GS: It's up to them to read their own terms

But Mr Carmichael said: ‘The fines levied in the past are clearly not influencing behaviour sufficiently and the Big Six are laughing at the penalties.’

SSE’s training was led by Chris Simms, a senior consultant brought in from Pareto Law, one of Britain’s biggest training firms. We covertly filmed as he told recruits: ‘You’ve got to create that desire and you’ve also got to maybe exaggerate a little bit of fear. Fear of what?

The trainees replied: ‘The switch.’ Simms reiterated: ‘The switch.’

SSE’s training was led by Chris Simms (pictured, standing), a senior consultant brought in from Pareto Law, one of Britain’s biggest training firmsYet the Government has repeatedly stressed the importance of making it easy for customers to find new suppliers. Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said in February: ‘The best way to keep the pressure on suppliers is by switching to the cheapest deals. This Government has introduced more competition... and made it easier than ever to switch.’

Trainer Chris Simms (pictured, standing) told staff to 'exaggerate' customers' fear

In another session, SSE trainer Gavin Sorley told trainees not to warn customers they could face exit fees if they left rival companies.

Our reporter asked whether exit fees should be mentioned and Sorley answered: ‘No. Can you imagine if we done every single call and every single customer had an exit fee and we told them you might have an exit fee. Can you imagine?’

Another trainee said: ‘They won’t come.’

Our reporter persisted: ‘But we were told the other day we should say that.’ But another trainer, Joss, said: ‘We don’t have to flag that. If they don’t mention anything about exit fees then it can’t be our fault.’

'CON' 3: MANAGER WENT TO JAIL FOR DRUG DEALING

Johnny Allen (pictured) starred in the BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary The Call Centre

The sales staff are headed by convicted drug dealer and really TV star Johnny Allen. The 22st team leader, who is in his mid-30s, found fame in the BBC's fly-on-the-wall show The Call Centre. He was jailed for four years in his mid-20s for selling cocaine and ecstasy. He tells SSE trainees: 'We're aware as a company, we ain't bloody stupid, we know we haven't got the prices to compare with everybody. We're asking these customers to hopefully come back on the way that you word it.'

SSE chief executive Alistair Phillips-Davies (pictured) made £2.31million last year in salary, bonus and pension contributionsSales team leader Johnny Allen, a reformed drugs dealer once jailed for four years, is a familiar face from BBC3’s fly-on-the-wall series The Call Centre.

He also weighed in on the subject, saying on film: ‘We could argue until Christmas, “Are we treating the customers fairly by not telling them about the exit fees?”

As far as SSE’s concerned we don’t need to, so we don’t do it.’

A staff member told our reporter that the company misled customers who had racked up debt into installing a meter that forced them to pay upfront. It also meant the customer was forced on to a standard tariff and could not access other cheaper deals on the market.

He said there were plans to extend the project to target properties in deprived areas but that was shelved, and that the entire operation, referred to as Chariot, was abandoned last November as the company deemed it unfair.

But SSE denied it was scrapped on those grounds. A spokesman said: ‘We seek to engage as early as possible with customers to offer support and find ways to help them manage their energy costs… Only where it is appropriate this may also include the option of a prepayment meter as a way to help customers budget and pay for their energy.’

In November, the company announced a 48 per cent rise in pre-tax profits, making almost £549million in six months from its 4.37 million electricity customers and almost three million gas customers.

Its chief executive, Alistair Phillips-Davies, earned a £2.31million package last year in salary, bonus, benefits and pension contributions.

During our investigation The Mail on Sunday also discovered SSE carried out secret personality tests on customers in a bid to boost sales. Trade unions have condemned such tactics of exploiting personality traits as ‘underhand’.

SSE’s training was led by Chris Simms (pictured, standing), a senior consultant brought in from Pareto Law, one of Britain’s biggest training firms

Simms talked the trainees through the four personality types – Doers, Actors, Friendlies, and Thinkers – coining the acronym DAFT.

Actors were described as ‘really easy to sell to’ as long as staff kept them talking about themselves. Doers and Thinkers ask lots of questions about facts and figures so staff should not waffle. Friendlies like empathy but are cautious buyers.

Staff were told that personal incentive targets were outlawed by Ofgem, but instead set up a ‘team sales target’ which dangled the prospect of a £2, 000 annual bonus to each member.

Sales teams were also encouraged to play a game called ‘Killer’ where each salesman began with three lives and was able to ‘kill’ a nominated colleague with a successful sale.

Whoever survived won a bag of sweets.

SSE was ranked a lowly 18th out of 22 energy firms in the 2016 Which? customer satisfaction survey of nearly 9, 000 respondents. The company scored just two stars out of a possible five for value for money.

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