Symbio Energy rapped over 'threatening' responses to negative reviews
Symbio Energy has been hit with a formal warning from review website Trustpilot, after MoneySavingExpert.com brought to its attention the way the supplier responds to negative reviews, which left some customers feeling threatened.
Over the past few months, angry customers of Symbio Energy have complained on the MSE Forum, social media and online review sites, as well as contacting us, about customer service issues at the small electricity-only supplier.
Many of the complaints about the supplier were posted on the review website Trustpilot. Symbio Energy had been replying to poor reviews on the platform including a link – with no context or comment – to an unrelated BBC News article about a man forced to pay thousands of pounds in libel damages to a legal firm over a negative Trustpilot review.
Customers of the firm have told us they perceive this to be "aggressive" and "threatening". Trustpilot has now launched an investigation – sending Symbio what it calls a formal 'cease and desist notice' after being alerted to the issue by MoneySavingExpert.com.
Trustpilot has since added a warning message to Symbio – confirming that the supplier’s replies are in breach of its guidelines. It says it has removed Symbio’s public replies that breach Trustpilot guidelines, though it appears that Symbio has continued to post the same message on new customer reviews.
Symbio Energy told us it added the links to its Trustpilot responses to "remind parties that if they wish to leave a comment it must be true".
Most of the complaints we've seen are around the estimates it uses to calculate bills, with many people saying it has ignored the meter readings they've provided and used inflated estimates instead. Many are also reporting they're struggling to get a response to their queries from the company, which Symbio blames on “operational issues" within its back office in India, caused by the pandemic.
What does Trustpilot say?
A Trustpilot spokesperson said: "We expect everyone to be a respectful contributor to our platform. Amongst other things, our guidelines for consumers and businesses require everyone to 'play nice'. Where consumers or businesses act in a way that is threatening, or is perceived to be so, we treat this as a breach of our guidelines and take steps to put a stop to it.
"In this instance, we have taken swift action, sending a formal cease and desist letter to the business demanding that all responses contravening our guidelines be quickly amended. As we investigate the business's profile further, we have also placed a consumer alert to warn everyone of our latest actions. Should a positive response from the business not be forthcoming in the next week, we will take further action."
Trustpilot's alert on its Symbio review page says: "We strongly oppose any attempts to silence consumers' freedom of speech. As a public, open review platform, we believe strongly in consumers having the ability to leave feedback – good or bad – about a business at any time, without interference."
'It's outrageous that it replied to people in this way'
Gary Caffell, utilities editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "It's outrageous that Symbio replied to people in this way, leaving many feeling threatened.
"It's important that consumers feel free to leave honest reviews based on genuine experiences. A good company will listen to the feedback and use it to improve its services."
What are Symbio Energy customers saying?
On top of concerns at how it addresses negative feedback on Trustpilot, we've seen numerous emails and social media posts complaining that Symbio has continually ignored actual meter readings customers have provided, and instead used inflated estimates.
This in turn has led to requests for high direct debit payments, and has caused problems when customers have tried to switch away or settle final bills with previous suppliers.
Some of the feedback we've seen includes:
- Tim emailed: "I researched the company on Trustpilot and was quite shocked to read their responses to reviews. Most of the reviews are negative, however their responses are quite aggressive, and seem to threaten customers by linking to a BBC News article about someone who was sued for leaving a negative review. They also link to an Apple News article and seem to infer that the negative responses are fake."
- Luke emailed: "I switched to Symbio around two months ago, and have had nothing but problems. To start they allegedly provided my previous supplier, Green, with a final meter reading 2,405 units above the reading (supported by a photograph) I provided Symbio as an opening reading.
"Green have now billed me over £300 for energy not used... and advised me they cannot alter this until Symbio raise a meter read dispute. I have over the last three weeks emailed a number of times to attempt to instigate this, and also called with no answer (had to leave an answerphone message). I have not had a single reply to any emails or a call back."
I'm having issues with Symbio Energy – what can I do?
While Symbio Energy is one of the cheapest electricity-only suppliers on typical use, if you're unhappy you can always switch supplier. You may end up paying a bit more, but it could be worth it if customer service is important to you – see our Cheap Energy Club to do a full market comparison. Just remember to factor any exit fees into your comparison if you're on a fixed deal. If you do switch, any credit Symbio Energy owes you would still be paid, and if you owe the firm you'll still need to pay any outstanding balance.
Under Ofgem's licensing conditions – specifically condition 21B of the electricity supply licence, which all suppliers must follow – if you provide a meter reading, Symbio "must take all reasonable steps to reflect the meter reading in the next bill or statement of account sent to the customer".
If you don't feel that is being adhered to, or if you're generally unhappy with the service you're getting from Symbio, here's how to complain:
- First, contact the supplier. In the first instance, it's always best to try getting in contact to see if it can sort the issue before you go down the official complaints route. You can contact Symbio on 0333 050 9372 or email it.
- Then raise an official complaint. If you can't get an answer or don't feel that your issue has been dealt with properly by the firm, you can lodge a formal complaint directly with the supplier, or use the free Resolver tool, which can help manage your complaint.
- Finally, complain to the ombudsman. If you're unhappy with the resolution, or you don't hear anything for eight weeks, you can refer your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, an independent body that handles disputes between consumers and energy firms.
What does Symbio Energy say?
A Symbio Energy spokesperson initially told us it is company policy not to respond to Trustpilot reviews. But after we challenged this, it backtracked and said the links it included in its responses "are to remind parties that if they wish to leave a comment it must be true and stand a judicial test for veracity".
It claimed it was the victim of "corporate cyberbullying" and that many of the reviews weren't from genuine customers, which it has reported to Trustpilot.
A Symbio spokesperson said: "The amount of calls we receive where customers seek to leverage bills, discounts and evade liabilities by threatening poor reviews or complaints [sic]. There is a published complaints route for [complaints, such as] the ombudsmans, litigation and [energy regulator] Ofgem. Cyber trolling is not in our opinion a socially acceptable route."
On its service issues, a spokesperson said: "We have a back office in Goa, India, and due to the pandemic issues in India there have been operational issues resulting from curfews and lockdowns.
"We are undergoing a massive recruitment programme to increase our staff ratios as well. However, I suspect in the absence of a forum to vent displeasure, customers who have outstanding debt and ongoing litigation will seek to complain, as is their right."
On the estimated billing issues, one of the most common complaints over recent months, Symbio says it follows "an advance billing system wherein we bill you one month in advance based on your estimated annual consumption. Upon receiving your meter reading at the end of each month, we reconcile the bill according to the meter reading submitted."
What does Ofgem say?
An Ofgem spokesperson said: "We routinely engage with suppliers to secure compliance with their regulatory obligations, but we do not normally comment on the specifics of any such engagement."