A natural gas utility that provides payment assistance to business customers who request it is rated high in overall satisfaction, and is ranked even higher when it makes the initial overture to a customer, said a new study released Wednesday.

Utility companies that contacted business customers to make special payment arrangements for overdue balances received a satisfaction index score of 710 on a 1,000-point scale, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 Gas Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study. This compared to a satisfaction score of 704 when customers had to contact gas utilities to make special arrangements for past due accounts. Gas utilities that did nothing to help customers who were behind on their payments received a low score of 598.

“When gas utility companies are accommodating and proactive in assisting business customers that are experiencing financial difficulty, it can result in significant increases in overall satisfaction,” said Chris Oberle, senior director of the energy practice at J.D. Power and Associates, a California-based global marketing information services firm.

“A utility’s willingness to waive late payment fees, set up payment plans, allow deferred payments and even reduce the amount owed conveys to customers that their utility provider values their business and is willing to help them through the tough times,” he said.

The study measures business customer satisfaction with their gas utility companies in four regions: East, Midwest, South and West. Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey ranked highest in the eastern region with a overall satisfaction index score of 651 on a 1,000-point scale. It was followed closely by New Jersey Natural Gas and Reading, PA-based UGI Utilities, each with a score of 641.

MidAmerican Energy of Des Moines, IA, ranked the highest in the Midwest for a second consecutive year with an overall satisfaction score of 709. Following it in the regional rankings were Minnesota-based Xcel Energy (691) and Alliant Energy of Madison, WI (689).

In the South, Austin, TX-based Texas Gas Service ranked highest with a score of 711, and was followed by North Carolina’s PSNC Energy (709) and South Carolina Electric & Gas (707). Northwest Natural headquartered in Oregon had the highest satisfaction score (696) in the West. Its closest rivals were Southern California Gas Co. (680) and Las Vegas, NV-based Southwest Gas (669).

The study also showed that awareness among surveyed business customers of their utility’s energy-savings programs had increased to 40% this year from 31% in 2009. When customers are aware of these programs, satisfaction with price is 113 points higher on average when compared with customers who are not aware, it said.

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