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Xenophobic energy sales patter is a load of hot air

BRITISH Gas was this week attempting to make a virtue of accuracy in its billing systems with a series of newspaper advertisements as it attempts to lure new customers with the promise of scrapping estimated monthly bills in favour of a new, more transparent system.<br /><br />Ironic then that just hours before the launch at least one British Gas salesman was doing everything possible to befuddle and confuse as he sought to persuade me to switch from a rival energy supplier.<br /><br />Part of his doorstep pitch was the rather xenophobic line that I should choose to be with a British company &ndash; British Gas &ndash; instead of a foreign-owned business like Scottish &amp; Southern Energy (SSE).<br /><br />Now last time I looked SSE was in fact a wholly-owned British company and is quoted on the London Stock Exchange. When I queried his facts on that point, the salesman stuck to his guns, arguing SSE was owned by Spanish banking group Santander.<br /><br />Perhaps he was thinking of rival energy group Scottish Power &ndash; which is owned by Spanish utility group Iberdrola? Either way he was just plain wrong and refused to be corrected &ndash; even when I explained I was a financial journalist and had written many times about the companies involved.<br /><br />So where has this confusion arisen? When asked for an explanation British Gas said: &ldquo;We aim to maintain high standards of quality and customer service, and our sales team undergoes regular training to ensure that our customers receive the best possible advice and care&rdquo;.<br /><br />Yet does it really matter to consumers what the ownership structure of their energy companies is?<br /><br />I would suggest that in ordinary circumstances it won&rsquo;t concern most energy customers. However, when a company like British Gas tries to make a virtue of its ownership in a nationalistic way then it is important.<br /><br />When I called SSE to ask what it made of this sales technique a spokesperson resisted the chance to attack the misrepresentation of its company to consumers. She said the group was proud to be a wholly-owned British company and sportingly put the incident down to a &ldquo;mix-up&rdquo;. However, she did admit that SSE seeks to take advantage of its &ldquo;unique selling point&rdquo; as a truly British company.<br /><br />As for British Gas, its salesman&rsquo;s claims to be a &ldquo;British company&rdquo; for British customers are rather hollow when a quick glance at the shareholder register reveals a number of foreign institutions. The Top 10 includes French insurer Axa, Boston-based asset manager State Street, Swiss private bank Pictet and Alliance Bernstein &ndash; the Wall Street asset management firm. British Gas has no more claim to be British these days than any of its main rivals.<br /><br />And if a company chooses to pursue this avenue for marketing purposes its customers deserve to know who really owns its parent company.<br />ben.griffiths@cityam.com