A new survey conducted by J.D. Power and Associates found that while business customers' satisfaction with their gas utility company remained flat, less than a third were familiar with the energy-savings programs the utilities provide.

J.D. Power also found that the percentage of business customers who recall receiving a communication from their gas utility had fallen to 43% in 2011, down from 48% in 2010.

"There is less of a conversation taking place right now, and that has had an impact on the communications scores coming down," J.D. Power spokesman Chris Oberle told NGI on Wednesday.

The J.D. Power survey, the Gas Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study, measures business customer satisfaction using six criteria -- billing and payment; corporate citizenship; price; communications; customer service; and field service. The survey also divides gas companies into four geographic regions -- East, Midwest, South and West.

According to the results, overall business customer satisfaction remained flat in 2011, averaging 651 on a 1,000-point scale; in 2010 the score was 652.

But satisfaction with communications declined about 2.8%, to 591 in 2011 froma 608 in 2010. It marked the first time in the study's six-year history that satisfaction with communications had fallen lower than that of price, which had been up to now the least-satisfying measure among business customers.

One continuing area of improvement for gas companies, according to the survey, is to promote and communicate its energy-savings programs. The survey found that only 32% of business customers were familiar with energy-savings programs provided by their gas company, up from 30% in 2009. In contrast, 55% of business customers of electric utilities were familiar with their energy-savings programs, up from 45% in 2009.

The survey also indicated that business customers familiar with the energy-savings programs provided by their gas utility were much more satisfied with price. Familiar customers rated price at 669 on the 1,000-point scale, compared to a 557 score from those customers not familiar with the programs.

"Business customers expect gas utilities to provide them energy-efficiency and conservation programs that will help them lower their bill amounts and demonstrate the utilities' dedication to helping the environment," Oberle said in a written statement. "The gap in awareness between gas utility business customers and electric utility business customers underscores that there is ample opportunity for gas providers to increase satisfaction by showing commitment to this important topic."

Oberle added to NGI that J.D. Power had recommended that gas utilities promote their success stories on several topics, including corporate citizenship, economic development, gas system upgrades and improvements, safety and environmental issues.

"Gas utilities have a good story to tell, and when they tell it they have very high satisfaction [ratings from customers]," Oberle told NGI. "The goal is to get more of those stories out so that businesses can understand what they're doing and how they add value to the relationship to the community."

Traffic to gas utility websites also declined sharply over the past three years. According to the survey, 22% of business customers visited the gas utility websites for information and service in 2011, compared to 48% in 2009.

"During the past several years, business customers have been moving away from using the utility website as an information resource," Oberle said. "To remedy this decrease in website traffic, gas utility websites need to improve by offering useful, fresh content that continues to draw customers back to their sites."

Survey respondents ranked New Jersey Natural Gas as the best gas utility in the East region, scoring a 669. Meanwhile MidAmerican Energy Co. ranked highest in the Midwest region at 693, Texas Gas Service earned the top score in the South region at 710, and Southwest Gas Corp. was rated tops in the West region at 701.

J.D. Power also said 20% of business customers who took the survey said their businesses had improved financially over the previous year, compared to 15% who said business was getting better in 2010. Conversely, the percentage of business customers who said their businesses had declined financially from the year before fell from 34% in 2010 to 24% in 2011.

J.D. Power polled more than 7,600 businesses that spent between $200 and $50,000 a month on natural gas. More than 55 gas utility companies were included in the study, which was performed from June to July 2010 and October to December 2010.

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