Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Measure of Satisfaction despite Monopoly Status, Region's Utilities Invest Heavily in Customer Satisfaction

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Measure of Satisfaction despite Monopoly Status, Region's Utilities Invest Heavily in Customer Satisfaction

Article excerpt

Satisfaction scores are up, but customers are leaving the region's electric utilities in droves.

But they continue to invest in customer service because even when customers leave, the utilities never lose them, thanks to the unique 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 released last month 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.

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 makes their 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 around 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 very 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. …

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