The average monthly bill of residential customers of natural gas utilities declined for a fourth consecutive year and — perhaps not coincidentally — customer satisfaction increased by seven points compared to last year, according to J.D. Power and Associates’ 2012 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

The study measures residential customer satisfaction with gas utility companies across six factors: billing and payment; price; corporate citizenship; communications; customer service; and field service. Overall satisfaction with gas utilities increased slightly, averaging 634 on a 1,000-point scale in 2012, compared with 627 in 2011.

“Each year as natural gas prices continue to drop, satisfaction with price will continue to be positively affected,” said J.D. Power’s John Hazen, senior director of the energy practice. “Additionally, both communication and customer service efforts by utility providers are also contributing to the overall satisfaction increases from last year.”

Customer satisfaction with price was 570 this year, an increase of 14 points compared with 2011. A lower proportion of customers recalled hearing about natural gas price increases from their utility provider in 2012 (24%), compared with 2011 (29%). And when customers are aware of energy-efficiency programs offered by their utility, satisfaction with price is 87 points higher than when they are not aware of the programs, according to the survey results.

The media is presenting a more positive portrayal of gas utilities, with the proportion of customers recalling positive media coverage increasing by 6% y/y to 27% in 2012, the survey found, and the percentage of customers who recalled having received a communication from their utility increased to 44% in 2012 from 35% in 2011.

Customer service satisfaction was up 14% compared with 2011, based in large part on a 10-point increase in customer satisfaction with online interaction with utilities and a 76% rate of resolving customer problems on their first contact with the utility.

“Areas such as customer service and communications are very personal to customers and provide an opportunity for utilities to make a significant impact on customer satisfaction,” Hazen said. “Utilities that make the most of these opportunities often perform well in overall satisfaction.”

The study ranked large and midsize utility companies in four geographic regions: East, Midwest, South and West. The increase in satisfaction among customers continues from last year’s survey (see NGI, Sept. 26, 2011).

Among large utilities in the East region, New Jersey Natural Gas ranked highest for a fourth consecutive year. Following in the segment rankings are UGI Utilities and PECO. In the East region midsize segment, NSTAR Gas ranked highest, followed by Yankee Gas and South Jersey Gas.

MidAmerican Energy ranked highest among large utilities in the Midwest region, followed by We Energies and DTE Energy. Among midsize utilities in the region, Citizens Gas ranked highest, followed by Metropolitan Utilities District and Alliant Energy. Oklahoma Natural Gas ranked highest among large gas utilities in the South region, followed by PSNC Energy and CenterPoint Energy-South. Among midsize providers in the region, South Carolina Electric & Gas ranked highest, followed by TECO Peoples Gas and CPS Energy.

Southern California Gas Co. ranked highest among large utilities in the West region for a second consecutive year, followed by NW Natural and Questar Gas, which each held those positions for a second consecutive year as well. Among midsize providers in the region, Intermountain Gas Co. was ranked highest for a third consecutive year, followed by Cascade Natural Gas and Avista.

The study was based on more than 63,500 responses from residential customers of the 75 largest gas utilities across the continental United States. These utilities serve nearly 54 million households. The study was conducted between September 2011 and July 2012.

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