Customers are leaving the region’s electric utilities, but satisfaction scores are up

Despite monopoly status, region's utilities invest heavily in customer satisfaction

Satisfaction scores are up, though customers are leaving the region’s electric utilities in droves. 

But the companies continue to invest in customer service because even when customers leave, the utilities never lose them, thanks to the way Pennsylvania’s electricity market is structured.

Duquesne Light and West Penn Power, the two utilities serving the region, rank second and fourth, respectively, among large-scale utilities in the East in customer satisfaction scores, according to an annual survey by J.D. Power. Large-scale utilities serve more than 500,000 customers. 

Yet both are seeing a large volume of customers shop for electricity elsewhere. 

Duquesne Light has seen 41.8 percent of its customer base switch to an alternate supplier, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. For West Penn Power, it’s 30.5 percent.

But that is of little concern to either company, which make money through the distribution of electricity, not the supply. In the state’s deregulated marketplace, customers can choose any company to supply their electricity. But its distribution is still administered by the protected utility companies.

“We’re delivery men,” Duquesne Light spokesman Brian Knavish said. “That’s where Duquesne Light makes money.”

The company encourages its customers to shop for the best rate because, even if they opt for another supplier, they still remain Duquesne Light customers.

Most businesses are forced to pay attention to customer satisfaction because of competition. As protected monopolies, utility companies operate without worrying about customer retention, especially since in Pennsylvania they are financially protected from consumer choice.

So why invest in customer service?

“We’re a regulated monopoly, and there are a lot of guidelines, a lot of mandates and a lot of expectations that we have to meet,” said Todd Meyers, a spokesman for West Penn Power and its parent company, Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.

The PUC requires utilities provide reliable service, which most directly impacts customer satisfaction scores, said John Hazen, senior director at J.D. Power.

Mr. Hazen said while utilities do not have to compete for customers, satisfaction is important to those companies, as J.D. Power has noticed in 16 years of monitoring electric utility satisfaction scores.

“It’s not just customer service,” he said. “Are they a good corporate citizen?”

Duquesne Light scored 656 on a 1,000-point scale, according to the survey. West Penn Power scored 647. The East region average was 626.

Both companies benefited in large part from geography. Several utility companies in the East Coast had to combat the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and lingering issues carried into this year’s survey, Mr. Hazen said.

“They key is to keep the lights on,” he said.

West Penn Power, which does not work with J.D. Power on customer satisfaction improvements, will invest $25 million this year trimming trees away from power lines, which will reduce outages, Mr. Meyers said. The company already has trimmed vegetation on 1,600 miles of lines and plans to finish the year by trimming trees on 4,400 miles of power lines.

Vegetation management has been an area of focus for the company the past several years, and its efforts have paid off. In 2010, West Penn Power customers had an average of 115 minutes of outages related to trees each year. As of March, that number had been reduced to 85 minutes.

Blue-sky outages, or service interruptions when there is no severe weather to blame, have been reduced by 50 percent since 2011, and the percentage of outages related to trees has decreased from 33 percent in 2011 to 29 percent in March, Mr. Meyers said.

The company also has made significant investments in communication technology with upgrades to its mobile app that allow better dialogue between the utility and its subscribers.

At Duquesne Light, the company has made a recent push for first-call satisfaction when customers call to report outages or issues, a common metric for customer service operations. But that can prove more challenging at electric utilities, where power outages cannot be fixed with a simple phone call.

“The best thing we can do is share the best information we have,” said Michele Sandoe, Duquesne Light’s vice president of customer care. “The idea is to reassure the customer we’re aware of the outage. That provides them with enough information so they can make the best decisions.”

She said the company is also working to update its mobile app so customers can have more avenues to report outages.

Duquesne Light is overhauling its customer care and billing system. The current version was installed in the 1990s, and Ms. Sandoe said it is time for an upgrade. The changes will give the company’s employees better tools to improve customer service, though it will be largely invisible to customers.

“In a perfect world, as a customer you’ll never see it,” she said.

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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