Interview with Jessica Wilson, Consumer NZ

3 October 2018

Jessica Wilson

Head of Research, Consumer NZ

Research has been the focus of Jessica Wilson’s career, and as research head at Consumer NZ, she’s responsible for a team that investigates a huge range of products and services with the aim of creating a fairer market for consumers. 

In Consumer NZ’s latest electricity survey, just 10% of consumers strongly agreed electricity retailers have their customers’ best interests at heart; 65% were concerned about cost; and close to 80% were trying to reduce their energy consumption. Price, customer service and complaint management were the main ‘pain points’.

At Utilities Disputes’ Membership Forum in August, Jessica said consumers want: fair prices and contract terms; an effective complaints process; penalties for misleading behaviour; better protection for vulnerable consumers; and consumer participation in regulatory processes.

How important is the role of customer service?
Very. Whether people feel they’re being treated fairly has a real impact on perceptions of the industry. Basic stuff – like answering the phone – also matters. In our electricity survey, 34% of consumers said they were kept on hold waiting to talk to a customer service rep. That’s not the experience you want when you’ve got a question about a bill or need help sorting your power – you want to talk to a real person. 
What stood out for you from the energy survey?
Pre-pay power company GLOBUG stood out for all the wrong reasons, with 42% of its customers complaining of poor service. GLOBUG’s result was really concerning because people on pre-pay are among the most vulnerable consumers and often have little choice about where they get their power. Unlike some other countries, we don’t have any specific service standards for pre-pay customers. That needs to change so these consumers are treated fairly. 
Are lower income consumers top-of-mind?
Yes, we’re acutely aware of how rising costs affect consumers on lower-incomes. We’ve been highlighting this issue for some time and will be making recommendations to the Electricity Price Review on what we think needs to change. 

How do you view the impact of competition in the energy market?
The big players still dominate – they still have the bulk of the residential market. Electricity is an essential service that all consumers should be able to access at an affordable price. The structure we have in place isn’t delivering this. 

What’s the stand-out feature of your role?
Advocating for better rights, better protection, better information for all consumers. It’s a real privilege to be in this position – all our research and testing is done with the end goal of empowering and protecting consumers. 
Do you enjoy the independence – being separate from both public and private sectors? 
Yes. We’re staunchly independent and it gives us the ability to cut through the fake reviews and marketing hype that confront consumers in today’s marketplace. 
Do you cop some flak?
Yes. Being criticised by businesses that don’t like what we’re saying is a regular occurrence - some make legal threats. But we have a very robust fact-checking process at Consumer NZ and we make sure our claims about products or companies are backed by good research. 

How do you get the word out?
Consumer NZ has been around since 1959, nearly 60 years. We have about 100,000 members and supporters, and public awareness is pretty good. A good chunk of the information we publish on our website is free. We also publicise issues through media releases and use social media. 

Is the testing side of it fun?
We’ve been known to have a bit of fun. Some traders make themselves a target with their overblown claims. We’ve tested products that are, in fact, totally useless but have been promoted with outrageous claims. We’ve also tested products misleadingly touting their green credentials. The “wellness” industry is also rife with ridiculous claims. There’s often a massive marketing effort that goes into these products and their claims deserve to be called out. 
You deal with complaints as we do, at Utilities Disputes, how do you manage them? 
When we think we need to step in and really go in to bat for our members, we will contact the retailer and help sort out the issue. When the consumer is willing to pursue the matter, we’ll give them advice on their rights and let them know they can take their case to Utilities Disputes if they get nowhere with the retailer. 
What are the best moments?
Helping to achieve concrete change that will make a measurable difference in peoples’ lives – for example, the ban on unfair contract terms in the Fair Trading Act and responsible lending rules in the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act. It’s been a really busy year on the consumer law front. It’s important the people the law intends to protect are represented in law reform processes. That’s part of our role – making submissions, taking part in working groups – and we speak out on behalf of consumers when the law’s not working, or companies aren’t playing by the rules.