UGI Utilities, Consumers Energy, South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) and Southwest Gas received top marks last week in J.D. Power and Associates’ 2003 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study. The overall customer satisfaction measurement is based on five factors (in order of importance): company image, price and value, billing and payment, customer service, and field service.

The annual study measures customer satisfaction performance among 55 of the largest local distribution companies in the country based on more than 11,000 telephone interviews with U.S. residential gas customers. The responses were collected from June through August 2003.

The study found that customer satisfaction was highest among those who believe that their gas utility performs well in providing pricing and payment options.

While three-fourths of consumers pay their gas utility bill through the mail or by visiting their utility, 90% of these customers would prefer to pay through an alternative method, such as the Internet, payment agency or automatic deduction from their bank account. When customers pay their bills over the Internet, they tend to rate their utility’s web site higher.

The study also finds that consumers are open to managing bill amounts through energy efficiency and rebate programs, which may keep potential rate increases from impacting their monthly utility bills.

“The most satisfied customers are those who believe their monthly bill will not change,” said Alan F. Destribats, executive director of the utility practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “Gas utilities are clearly faced with a growing need to innovate how they allow consumers to do business with them.”

Monthly residential gas utility bills have increased 11% over 2002 and most consumers expect similar increases next year, the survey found. “Higher bills are taking their toll on customer satisfaction with gas providers, and consumers are demanding more control over how much they pay for gas service, as well as how they pay their bills,” said Destribats. “With the growing interest in new payment methods, as well as the potential for higher bills, local gas companies will be faced with the need to provide more options to their customers.”

The companies that scored the highest in customer satisfaction were divided into four regions. In the Eastern Region, UGI Utilities ranked highest with top scores on company image and billing and payment. Also performing well in the region were New Jersey Natural Gas, Washington Gas Light, South Jersey Gas Co. and Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania.

In the Midwest, Consumers Energy ranked highest for the second consecutive year with top regional scores for company image and billing and payment. The Midwest was the most closely contested region with the top six gas utilities scoring within four index points of the top score. Also performing well in the Midwest region were Citizens Gas & Coke, Louisville Gas and Electric, Cincinnati Gas & Electric, CenterPoint Energy-Minnegasco and Laclede Gas.

In the Southern Region, South Carolina Electric and Gas ranked highest with top performances in billing and payment, company image and customer service. Also performing well in the region were Alagasco, Piedmont Natural Gas, Atmos Energy Louisiana and CenterPoint Energy-Entex.

And in the West, Southwest Gas ranked highest, receiving the region’s top scores for company image, price and value, and customer service. Also performing well were Southern California Gas, Northwest Natural, Puget Sound Energy and Questar Gas.

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