As heating bills rise, Peoples Gas comes in last in customer-satisfaction ranking

By Steve Daniels, Crain’s Chicago Business. September 14, 2018

Rate fatigue is taking a toll on Chicagoans, at least judging by Peoples Gas’ customer-satisfaction ratings.

The natural gas utility for the city of Chicago scored dead last for large gas utilities in the Midwest in J.D. Power’s annual customer survey, released Sept. 12. Unlike most other utilities in the region, which saw their customer-satisfaction scores climb, Peoples’ score dropped slightly from last year.

It was also the first time in three years that Peoples Gas trailed all its Midwestern peers in the yearly ranking.

A spokesman for J.D. Power said Peoples’ average monthly gas bill of $111 over the survey period was the highest of any utility in the region. Not surprisingly, Peoples scored the lowest in customer opinion on pricing.

In response, Peoples Gas spokeswoman Vanessa Hall said in an email, “We’re certainly not satisfied with this year’s overall ranking by J.D. Power. However, we continue to be focused on delivering higher levels of customer satisfaction.”

She pointed to customer-satisfaction initiatives at the company, including a new customer-information system introduced last year. Large-scale initiatives like that generally take “12 to 18 months” to produce results in terms of improved satisfaction, she said.

“Other recent customer service initiatives include the launching of our Facebook page as another vehicle for direct customer communication, completion of over 60,000 individual customer satisfaction calls, and the ability for our customers to escalate concerns to senior leadership,” she wrote.

Heating bills for Chicagoans are rising because of unprecedented capital spending by Peoples to replace old gas mains in the city. A massive, $300 million-per-year infrastructure program had city residents paying 80 percent more for heat last winter than suburbanites served by Nicor Gas. And that despite Nicor also substantially ramping up its capital spending.

The problem is that Peoples’ customer count of 845,000 is dwarfed by Nicor’s 2.2 million. The larger customer base is far better able to absorb the higher costs due to the spending. State utility regulators have publicly fretted that a significant increase in Chicago households unable to afford winter heat is coming, but they assert they are powerless under state law to order Peoples to slow down the program.

In recent years, Chicagoans, who have always paid higher rates than suburbanites to heat their homes, have seen the gap go from about 35 percent to 80 percent.

Peoples’ customer-satisfaction score of 715 (on a 1,000-point scale) was 21 points below the average score of 736 for Midwestern utilities. Peoples’ 2017 score of 717 was 17 points off the average, and its 2016 score of 692 was 9 points below the average.

Chicagoans are fortunate that so far, natural gas costs are cheap by historic standards. Still, between now and Nov. 1, when heating season officially starts, tens of thousands might see their gas disconnected for delinquent bill paying.

Peoples sent more than 65,000 disconnection notices to residential customers between April and the end of June, according to a recent filing with the Illinois Commerce Commission. Through June, the gas lines of slightly more than 3,600 customers were disconnected. Nearly 790 customers were reconnected during that time.

During the non-heating months last year, Peoples disconnected a negligible number of households because of the new billing system it was installing. But in 2016 it disconnected a total of 20,000, Hall says. In the years 2011 through 2015, an average of 37,700 households were cut off each year.

“We make every attempt to work with our customers to keep them connected,” she says.

You can read the full Crain’s article here.