A chronic headache

When Jon Brownsey rang me in mid September from Fordingbridge Service Station in Hampshire he said he had had "a permanent headache for 10 days".

The headache was called Torex.

In the week prior to his call, the site lost the ability to take credit cards on around half a dozen occasions. Various error messages were displayed on the till. He had been assured that this problem was now fixed, but the site was also unable to poll at night which meant no money going into the account. He had switched from Total to Harvest Energy on September 10 so it coincided with a switch in software. At the time, he was also unable to order his supplies from Londis electronically.

Jon says he has decided to make a fuss to the press (in this case, Forecourt Trader magazine) because this problem followed a whole year of headaches.

A year ago his back-office system packed up and Torex’s third party maintenance company Phoenix took it away, leaving him one "that looked worse" (he believes that Phoenix often uses reconditioned parts). This too packed up and he eventually got his old one back. Its fan rattles but he says he puts up with this because he is very disillusioned with Phoenix and doesn’t dare risk one of its replacements.

He also bought two new tills but after six months the drawer in till number one stopped opening so he says he was having to "work off the key all the time, opening it after every transaction". Phoenix took the drawer away, leaving him with "a tatty one". He asked if he was going to get a new one but was told this was unlikely. He draws an analogy: "It’s like your Ford Focus goes wrong after six months and the company gives you an old Cortina as a replacement." Obviously he made a fuss over the warranty.

There was then a fiasco when he was away at a trade show and two couriers showed up at the site in his absence. One was delivering a new drawer and another picking up the same parcel in the space of two hours. The mix-up was only identified when he looked at CCTV footage. He says it took from February till April to sort this out.

He says he is continually being told "this is the first time that’s ever happened" and he says: "That’s going to be written on my gravestone. We must be the unluckiest site in the world."

Jon also makes the very valid point that the current problems have made him look stupid in front of a lot of customers and says: "You end up dealing with what’s urgent all the time rather than what is important."

We got in touch with Micros (Torex) and things started to move. Jon is now quite happy, new back office, polling away, ordering to his heart’s content.

And Torex said, in its official response: "Through working with our customer we are pleased to say that all the issues reported have now been resolved to their satisfaction."

Young blood, renewed energy

It’s always good to see new, young blood coming into the forecourt world so I was keen to talk to Matt Smith who has been in the business one month (as at late September).

He was, in another life, (no, not Doctor Who!) in the planning department of the local council. So you can imagine the culture shock when he took over the family business Haynings Service Station in Framlington, Suffolk owned by his father-in-law. A month ago, on October 1, he married Rachel so, talk about all change.

The business has been in Rachel’s family for three generations, having been established in 1955, although Rachel herself works outside the business. Matt admits it has been a very steep learning curve for him on the forecourt: "All the supplier codes, the spreadsheets, the hours!" he says. And he has six full-time and three part-time staff to manage as well.

But while trying on the various hats required by anyone operating an independent business, he has already saved the business a considerable lump of money. He used energy broker Make It Cheaper, which switched him from Opus Energy to Scottish Power, saving £700 a year.

He even took the time (of which he has precious little at the moment) to post a complimentary note on the broker’s website, praising the service, the explanation of all the jargon and the time he was given to get his head round the offers.

Make It Cheaper says it compared UK businesses and found companies were being charged up to three times the rate per unit of others by their business energy supplier. Switching suppliers to cheaper electricity and gas rates and getting the cheapest prices is one of the best ways to reduce costs and a broker will have a team of experts to find the most competitive price and also ensure you don’t get stuck in those sneaky roll-over contracts.

After all it’s the same stuff coming down the pipes or over the wires; there’s no such thing as a premium grade or ’everyday basic’ here the only difference is the name the supplier gives it and the (often confusing) package it is dressed up in.

As this is being written, prices are going upBritish Gas, Npower, Scottish Power, all of them.

I always say to retailers, you probably don’t do your car insurance yourself and when you can use an energy broker for nothing, why not?

It leaves you more time to concentrate on the business.