Utility websites have been growing their functionality offerings and now more than 70% of them allow customers to check account balances on-line compared to less than 50% in 2005.

That’s one of the findings of E Source, a Boulder, CO-based research firm covering retail energy markets, services and technologies, which has reported its latest benchmark results for the performance of North American electric and gas company websites.

This year, the top-rated electric and gas websites belong to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Florida Power & Light, Wisconsin Public Service, NW Natural and Progress Energy (Carolinas). The first study was completed in 2002; E Source found that between that study and this one, most of the utility websites reviewed have changed significantly in their attempt to keep up with increasing customer expectations.

“Customers’ expectations are increasing alongside their familiarity with the rising standards of bank, e-commerce and transportation websites, so offering them the ability to perform more transactions on a responsive, highly usable website has become more important,” said Ethan Brown, a research analyst at E Source.

E Source said companies whose websites changed the least since 2002 “received noticeably lower ratings from our reviewers” for their current website offerings.

“Some utilities have made multi-million-dollar investments in their websites and associated on-line self-service options,” said Andrew Heath, director of the E Source E-Business Service. “These companies are getting benefits in terms of increased customer satisfaction from customers wanting to interact online.”

In the “E Source 2007 Review of North American Electric and Gas Company Web Sites” 111 U.S. and Canadian utility websites were assessed from the customer’s point of view. Many of the utilities included gave E Source researchers temporary account access to enable a full assessment of their secure online services.

Between December 2006 and March 2007, several reviewers — typical residential energy customers — visited the selected utility websites. Each site was visited by multiple reviewers, a different methodology than in earlier E Source surveys. While there, they looked for and rated 27 tasks and functions that had been identified by E Source research as the options residential customers most expect to find and use when they interact with a utility website.

Top utility websites by region were:

PG&E has added new features and made improvements to its website to be more customer friendly, the company said. “In the ‘My Account’ section, customers can securely view their bill and bill history, make payments from their checking account or Visa debit or credit card, establish payment arrangements or schedule service requests. Customers can find ways to save energy and money as well as apply for rebates on energy saving products.”

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