Residential gas utility customers are happier with their service providers this year than last, according to the new J.D. Power and Associates 2010 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

The improvement in customer satisfaction is due to lower bills, more frequent communication from the companies and what customers perceive to be better corporate citizenship by utilities, said the firm, whose survey queries customers on billing and payment, price, corporate citizenship, communications, customer service and field service.

In the latest survey, overall satisfaction averaged 629 on a 1,000-point scale, up 13 points from 616 in 2009. In addition, among the 75 brands ranked in the study, 70 have improved from 2009.

Customer-reported bill amounts have decreased to $90 in 2010 from $98 in 2009. In addition, the percentage of customers who indicated that they have heard about an impending rate increase has declined slightly to 29% in 2010 from 31% in 2009.

Increased satisfaction with communications came from improved customer recall of messages from their gas utility and a greater emphasis on communications regarding cost-saving and energy conservation.

Satisfaction with corporate citizenship increased by 11 points from 2009 due to improved customer perceptions of energy savings programs and concern for the environment. Customer familiarity with energy savings programs has increased to 28% in 2010 from 21% in 2009.

"Not only are customers responding positively to messages about how to conserve energy and reduce their bill amounts, but they are indicating that they want utilities to provide even more of these messages. Nearly two-thirds of residential gas utility customers indicate that they believe their utility should spend more money on communications," said Chris Oberle, senior director of the energy practice at J.D. Power.

With the release of last year's survey results the firm said customers were looking to utilities to demonstrate corporate citizenship in the areas of conservation and environmental stewardship (see NGI, Sept. 28, 2009).

The study ranked large and midsize utilities in the East, Midwest, South and West. Companies in the midsize utility segment serve between 165,000 and 399,999 residential customers, while companies in the large utility segment serve 400,000 or more residential customers.

Among large utilities in the East, New Jersey Natural Gas ranked highest and received an award for a second consecutive year. Following in the segment rankings are UGI Utilities and Washington Gas. In the East region midsize utility segment, South Jersey Gas Co. ranked highest, followed by NSTAR Gas and Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania.

MidAmerican Energy ranked highest among large utilities in the Midwest, followed by CenterPoint Energy-Midwest and Xcel Energy-Midwest, respectively. Among midsize utilities in the Midwest region, Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha ranked highest. Following in the segment rankings are Louisville Gas & Electric and Alliant Energy (a tie).

PSNC Energy ranked highest among large gas utility providers in the South, followed by Texas Gas Service and Oklahoma Natural Gas. Among midsize providers in the South, CPS Energy ranked highest. Following in the segment rankings are TECO Peoples Gas and South Carolina Electric & Gas.

NW Natural ranked highest among large utilities in the West. Following in the segment rankings are Southern California Gas Co. and Puget Sound Energy. Among midsize providers in the West, Avista Utilities and Intermountain Gas Co. ranked highest (a tie). Following in the segment ranking is Colorado Springs Utilities.

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