Have you ever had letters from your bank or utility firm charging extra fees to cover their processing or administration costs? It's annoying, even when they are supposedly justified by the wording in the small print, but have you ever imagined sending an administration bill to one of the utilities because they have wasted your time?
It's something that I have considered, both back where I used to live in London and now in São Paulo. Although I'd have to say that in Brazil there is even more of an expectation from big brands that you have spare time during the day Monday to Friday to work out issues with bills.
So it made me smile when I recently heard of one British customer who did actually start sending bills to an energy company. When journalist Steve Clark switched from electricity company npower to one of their rivals he wanted to get back the £135 they had on his account. Instead they continued to send him bills.
He contacted the company, but found that they were not at all helpful so he issued them with a £50 fee for the time he had spent chasing his own money - and a demand for it to be paid within seven days.
The £50 was just a token amount, but I can understand exactly where Steve was coming from with his demands. When I have faced similar problems it has required calls, emails, letters, and time away from work because most brands want you to contact them during working hours.
You can go to Steve's blog here to read the full story of his own encounter with npower - there were several letters and emails bouncing to and fro - however the end result was that npower refunded the money to Steve and paid the fee he charged them!
What would happen if more consumers started taking this approach to brands when they feel that the customer service team is not helping them?
Steve is a journalist so he has access to some media outlets that might have helped this process, but with every customer now able to publish their experience on blogs and social media, any similar complaint can be published instantly - meaning the pressure is on brands to be smarter about the service they provide.
To be fair to npower in this specific case, all the correspondence they sent to Steve was courteous and it appeared that they were trying to get to the bottom of the problem. There was clearly a delay in sorting out his final bill and this led to automated bills being sent - annoying for the customer and embarrassing for the utility, but ultimately they were polite and agreed with everything the customer said.
In the end, I even felt a little sorry for the managers at npower, who were clearly apologising for a mistake made months earlier without their knowledge. They held up their hands and took it on the chin, even paying his £50 administration fee so it is possible for a big company to see that they have made a mistake and to apologise... sometimes.