By now you’ll probably have read several posts on the entire debacle, which saw British Gas’ Customer Services Director Bert Pijls facing off against some 16,000+ angry tweeters after the company announced a price rise of almost 10% on October 17th. 

Many of the tweets were facetious or darkly amusing, or just angry. We checked on Friday afternoon and found 145 contained the word ‘death’, 88 ‘greedy’ and 72… a word not fit to print in a family newspaper. However, they did underline a real sense of outrage at such a significant rise.  

At this point it’s worth considering the British Gas reaction. According to the company’s official statement;

We know people are worried about rising energy prices and they want to talk about this – including on twitter – and it’s important we’re there for them to talk to. That’s why we offered a Q&A session with our customer services director.  It was the right thing to do because we are committed to being open and transparent with our customers at all times.

Technically speaking, this is a perfect approach to social media. So how did it go so wrong? 

Timing is everything

The company had good reason to expect an angry response and should definitely have been there to help and explain, however by setting up the official #AskBG session the company shot itself in the foot, giving angry consumers an official rallying point on the same day as the rises were announced.

While it’s hard to argue with the sentiment, it would have been far more constructive to publish an official statement via a dedicated landing page on the day, and answer questions as they came in, before scheduling an official Q&A a few days later. 

The problems were compounded by BG’s reluctance or inability to answer many of the specific questions put to them.

Although it was quick to put the finger on wholesale prices as a major factor in the increase, (several tweeters were quick to point out that prices rarely fell alongside wholesale prices, but that’s another can of worms entirely), it was unable to expand in detail on this, and while figures covering the impact of government initiatives did eventually surface, it was out of context and little was done to ensure that this information reached the specific users asking the questions. 

Currently nPower seems to be following suit, blaming government green initiatives for the bulk of the rise. 

Both of these explanations are incomplete (and, let’s be honest, not entirely true). Customers want clear, full information, and for all its brilliance, Twitter often isn’t the place for that. 

Social media is effective when it is connected

Overall it seems that the real problem here was a lack of connected strategy, which undermines the second point in that official statement – the need for transparency. 

Twitter is built on interaction and sharing.

This is good news for marketers and PR people as it means things snowball quickly.

This is also terrible news for marketers and PR people because things snowball quickly. 

British Gas could have saved itself a fair amount of hassle if it had thought more thoroughly about the kind of questions users would expect to have answered.

A simple set of landing pages with FAQs attached would have been enormously helpful. In addition, it’s easier to communicate important information in a calmer environment.  Here comms were muddled and often unhelpful

To their credit, BG did post several useful links to energy saving advice, but frankly, telling your customers that the only way to save money on your product is to use less of it is hardly a recipe for success, and this simply wasn’t the main point of interest.

People wanted a clear, concise breakdown of the factors causing the price rise.

Throughout, it felt as though the entire session was giving lip service to proper social media practice, but that the customer service team had no ability to escalate the information they received. Followers were left with the feeling that they were wasting their breath, and this only exacerbated the situation. 

It’s all well and good for companies to claim that they want to be transparent, and allow their customers to speak to them, but this really is only of value if they actually listen.

In this case British gas took a bad situation and made it worse, and have paid the PR price.