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Energy providers score best, cable/wireless services bottom out in PSC survey

New data from state regulators confirms what some consumers suspected all along: The companies that provide cable and wireless service aren't very good at responding to customer complaints.

Who does the best? Gas and electric companies – a result that may come as a surprise to some customers.

Those are the general findings from a Public Service Commission index that tracks how well utility companies in New York respond to consumer complaints.

The agency's customer service response index takes into account the average age of all pending complaints, how long it took the provider to close an initial complaint or an escalated complaint and whether the company generated escalated complaints – those that customers tell the commission weren't resolved.

National Fuel had the best customer service response index score for 2017 among every utility company reviewed by the commission, a 9.75 on a scale where 10 is the highest.

"We measure this stuff quite literally on a day-by-day basis," said Stephen Brady, a spokesman for National Grid in upstate, where the company ranked fifth among New York's utilities.

Three of the lowest-scoring companies were upstate branches of Spectrum, which is Charter Communications' rebranding of Time Warner Cable.

It's important for companies to promptly address customer complaints, said a University at Buffalo expert on consumer behavior.

"I think the more competitive a situation, the more it matters," said Charles D. Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing.

The commission refers complaints it receives to the companies. The utilities are then required each month to report back to the commission on the status of the complaints.

Whenever a consumer follows up with the commission to say the initial complaint wasn't addressed, the agency directs the company to respond to this escalated complaint.

Four individual indexes are combined into the overall customer service response index. Companies that respond promptly to solve problems and that don't leave a lot of complaints pending score the highest. It's how the companies respond to complaints, not their raw number, that drives the scores.

The Buffalo News analyzed the commission data, as presented on the Open NY website, and generated scores for 2017.

It's important to note this only applies to complaints received directly by the commission. And this index does not factor in other data such as a survey of customer satisfaction.

National Fuel had the highest score out of 33 utilities, followed by a number of other energy services providers.

National Grid upstate earned a 9.32 out of 10. New York State Electric & Gas, which serves customers in Western New York, came in seventh with a 9.23.

Telecommunications companies that serve customers in this area fared worse.

Three listings for Verizon – Verizon New York, Verizon Digital Voice and Verizon Communications – scored between 6.6 and 8.03.

AT&T scored a 7.47. And Spectrum's Buffalo operations scored a 6.85. Spectrum's complaint response scores in Albany, 3.41; New York City, 1.79 and Syracuse, 1.69, were far lower.

So what's going on here? National Fuel said this index aligns with other reports that show the Amherst-based company performs well on telephone response time, nonemergency appointments kept and new service installations.

"This report certainly highlights the fact that we work hard to have the lowest complaint rate and strive for high customer satisfaction levels across our utility operations," said National Fuel spokeswoman Karen Merkel said by email.

Companies can earn a maximum of 5 points in the metric that examines the ratio of intial complaints to escalated complaints. National Fuel back in 2005 earned 3.79 points, and in 2007 earned just 4 points before beginning in 2010 an uptick to 4.9 or nearly 5 points every year.

Merkel said the company's customer service department and field team studied the reasons customers were dissatisfied and introduced changes such as making available more morning and evening service appointments.

National Grid upstate had a high raw number of complaints – 2,631 last year – but that reflects the utility's large base of 1.6 million electric customers and 640,000 gas customers, Brady said. Also, he said, that number fell from 2,911 in 2016.

"We make a concerted effort to minimize the number of complaints we get in the first place," Brady said. He said the company also has ramped up complaint resolution training for its customer-service representatives and other employees.

Spectrum said it spent 2017 rolling out its new pricing plans to former Time Warner Cable customers and boosting its Internet starting speeds.

"Despite the high level of activity and customer communication, we reported last month to the PSC that we’re making significant progress in reducing our level of customer complaints and are on track to meet our merger commitments," Lara Pritchard, a Spectrum spokeswoman, said in an email.

Lindsey said he's not surprised the energy providers scored best. Customers have are more demanding of their cable and wireless providers, in part because there's so much competition, Lindsey said.

"What you have to do as a firm for me to give you a 9, or a 9.5, is perhaps higher because my expectations are higher," Lindsey said.

Telecommunications companies also have more opportunities to let down their customers, given how often on a daily basis cable, internet and phone services are used.

Yes, people interact with their gas or electric provider, but that's usually just a matter of turning a light on or raising the thermostat, he said, except for the rare occasions when a power failure or gas leak strikes.

The leading reasons for customer complaints include slow service, companies not living up to promises and representatives not apologizing, Lindsey said. Companies need to treat complaints from customers as valuable feedback on their business model and they need a holistic process to genuinely address the problems, he said.

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