Customers are paying slightly more for natural gas than they were a year ago, but customer satisfaction -- particularly with price and value -- has increased, in part because utilities are educating customers about managing energy costs, according to a study by J.D. Power and Associates.

The marketing firm's 2007 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, released last week, measured residential customer satisfaction with gas utility companies across six factors: company image, communications, price and value, billing and payment, customer service and field service. The study results were based on more than 25,000 online interviews conducted between September 2006 and July 2007 among residential customers of the 59 largest electric utilities across the continental United States.

Based on a 1,000-point scale, overall gas utility residential customer satisfaction remained stable at 626 in 2007, up slightly from 623 in 2006.

"Helping customers manage their energy costs by educating them about lowering their consumption adds considerable value to the relationship a gas utility has with its customers," said Alan Destribats, senior vice president of the energy practice at J.D. Power. "It not only helps customers manage their bills, but also reflects a utility's concern for the environment and its leadership in the local communities it serves."

According to the study, average reported bill amounts have remained stable since 2006, averaging $108 in 2007, which is about $4 more than in 2006. Among customers who say they recall receiving a communication from their utility company in 2007, 54% said that the communication related to an energy conservation or energy efficiency topic -- an increase from 47% in 2006.

Customers who said they received at least one of these communications also provided satisfaction scores for the price and value factor that are 71 points higher on a 1,000-point scale, on average, than customers who don't have this recollection. In addition, customers who recall receiving energy conservation information from their utility report increased satisfaction with their utility company's concern for the environment and commitment to the local community.

J.D. Power ranked the utilities in four geographic regions.

In the East, UGI Utilities ranked highest in customer satisfaction for a fifth consecutive year. Also performing well in the East were New Jersey Natural Gas, Washington Gas Light, KeySpan and Bay State Gas. MidAmerican Energy was tops in the Midwest, followed by CenterPoint Energy-Minnesota, E. ON U.S. and Citizens Gas and Coke Utility.

CPS Energy ranked highest in overall customer satisfaction in the South, followed by Piedmont Natural Gas and Alagasco. In the West, Northwest Natural was the leader, followed by Southern California Gas Co. and Pacific Gas and Electric.

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