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ConocoPhillips, Noble Energy Top Customer Value Ranking

ConocoPhillips came out on top of Mastiogale's most recent customer value survey of major natural gas marketing companies, and Noble Energy was at the top of the regional marketer list, but Mastiogale spokesman Kevin Huntsman said after years of turmoil in the marketing and trading business, today there is very little that sets the top tier of companies apart from the bottom tier.

"You are seeing a little more stability than we've seen in the past," said Huntsman. "We haven't seen the wild swings in results in a particular area or from company to company.

"I don't think there's the high anxiety level that there was. You take all the Enron stuff away when every week someone was getting out of the merchant business and now you don't see as much of [those reliability and creditworthiness concerns]," he noted.

Price and supply reliability are still the most important things for customers followed by honesty, trustworthiness and historical dependability. The 2005 rankings are based on interviews with industrials, local distribution companies, electric generation companies, independent power producers, oil and gas producers and marketers. Each respondent rates marketers on 28 attributes. The study also asked several open-ended questions such as, "Besides price, what is the most important factor that you use to select one natural gas marketer over another."

Mastiogale's latest customer value study includes perceptions of 38 gas marketers who compete with one another in the U.S. and Canada. When comparing the latest edition of the results with the last survey, Mastiogale found that nearly 60% of the marketers experienced an increase in their overall customer value score while the remaining 40% experienced a decrease. Even with a majority of the marketers experiencing an increase in their score, only 42% in the current edition qualified to be considered as a supplier who exceeded the industry performance benchmark.

Major marketers who exceeded the benchmark included ConocoPhillips, BP, Nexen, Oneok, and Sempra. Regional marketers who surpassed the benchmark included Noble Energy, Atmos Energy and CenterPoint. Many other marketers would have exceeded the benchmark had they received enough responses from customers. In order to be statistically accurate, at least 30 respondents must provide input on a particular company. Constellation, for example, had the highest customer value score among the major marketers but did not have enough ratings to make the score statistically accurate compared to the other companies.

The most important issues to buyers of natural gas have changed little since the previous study, said Huntsman. "A lot of the overall score is predicated on pricing. If they are a lower priced marketer, they are probably going to do better in that customer value score. Really around 70% of the weight on that is price and the rest is on the individual attributes. When you break into the attributes, reliability is up there at the top."

At the bottom end of the 38 marketers, the main issues that really come into play are the "soft issues," said Huntsman. "They may not be as easy to do business with. If you call and have a question, they may take longer to get back to you than some of the companies that excel. They may not be as good at developing that partnering relationship. As far as reliability of supply and things like that, most of the companies are pretty good because if they weren't they would even be in the business."

He said one issue that continues to bring down companies' scores is "lack of communication. If they switch a rep, they don't let people know that they switched -- I'm calling asking for Kevin and Kevin is gone, but I was never told. When I look at these companies on the low end, I see lack of communication time after time."

The questions around company reputation, financial strength, dependability in meeting commitments are still up toward the top as far as importance. "We haven't seen any wild swings in scores for those issues, so that leads me to believe there's more stability in the industry. A lot of the companies are really close to the benchmark but just didn't quite make it."

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