How to Ruin Your Reputation ... And (Partially) Redeem It
A few months back, I had a very negative experience with my energy company that cost me $1500 in unexpected electric bills. I was so frustrated and so sure of the righteousness of my cause that I nearly came out of my self-imposed exile from blogging to publically rip the company in violation rules 1-3 of my "10 Somewhat-Flexible Laws of Blogging About Companies."
- Never talk ill of a client or potential client.
- Almost everyone is a potential client.
- If you must violate rule #1, don't mention the company name.
I'm glad I didn't. Even though they never reimbursed those excessive fees, they eventually implemented a program to make sure my situation never happens again.
A Series of Unfortunate Electric Bills
In July, I received a bill that was about 4.5 times the normal amount (for activity in the month of June). Convinced this was a mistake, I called my electric company about it, and they advised me to have my meter re-read, and that it would take about 10 business days for this to take place, but that they would contact me when the read was done.
I did not hear from them again until I got my next bill, which was also 850% more than it was over the same period the previous year. At that point, I wrote them again on August 7 and asked why they hadn't let me know what the results of the re-read were so that I could look at different options. When they responded (2 weeks later after promising a 24-hour response), they said they never put in a request for a re-read.
While this was happening, I contacted my apartments to have them check my air conditioning to make sure everything was working right. They said it was, but that they cleaned the appliance regardless.
Whenever I called the electric company, instead of helping me figure out why my bills were so high, kept trying to sell me a fixed-rate contract. Sure, doing so would have saved me some money, but the scope of their "fix" would have saved me $10-$12 per month, not $500-$600, which is what I really needed. They had their script, and they were sticking to it. It took escalating the issue two levels before I got someone at the company to admit that something seemed "off" about my bill situation.
In the middle of a brutal Texas summer, with my dog staying there and while the bill was in dispute, the electric company shut off power to my apartment to force me to pay at least part of the disputed bill (I later found out this was in violation of the Utility Customer Bill of Rights).
How Energy is Delivered and Billed in Texas
Getting to the bottom of this, I got quite the education on how electricity is delivered and billed in Texas.
Essentially, the company that delivers electricity has nothing to do with how electricity gets billed, and the billing company (which can be one of several) is ready to lose you quickly, because customers are easily replaceable. It can be TXU, Reliant, Green Mountain or any other electric company. All they do is service the billing. Which you choose as a consumer is based on the rates and service you expect to get.
Thanks to the help of a knowledgable friend, I finally found the real cause of the issue, I called the electric company and asked if they would help with the part of the bill due to their lack of responsiveness. They refused. Eventually I protested through regulatory channels, and a very small portion was refunded.
Customer Service: It Is Your Job
I finally spoke with a representative of the office of the president in response to this official complaint, and suggested that they need to be more responsive and help people between bills realize if something is happening between billing periods. Not only did she disagree that their lack of responsiveness imparted on them any responsibility for three months of outrageous bills, but she directly told me that, regarding my suggestion that they notify people when their usage seems to spike 850%, "That's not what we do."
Then I took to Twitter, hoping to find someone higher in authority than the last person I spoke with.
The person who monitors their Twitter channel is a marketer, not a customer service person. She had no authority to help resolve the issues of customers, which only further frusterated me, because though she asked me to tell my story, she could not help. To her credit, she seemed sincere in her concern for my frustration (If she wasn't being authentic, she at least faked it well).
This interaction convinced me of the truth of what Oliver Blanchard wrote in Social Media ROI:
"Remember, it is easier to train a good customer support representative to use social media than to train an experienced social media user to be a good customer support professional."
As for the representative within the office of the president, she was just intent on getting me to pay three months of outrageously high bills, not helping me solve my issue or even making me feel heard. She took a very "That's not my job" approach, not only for herself, but also for their entire organization. Had she met me halfway, had she hinted that she understood why I was upset and her company's role in that frustration, my tone in this article would be much different.
So, normally I would have cut off ties with the company regardless. End of story. Although I'm better equipped now -- having learned an awful lot about how electricity works in Texas -- I had no faith that this is the company I wanted to do business with should I ever have any difficulty again. Then the organization did something that suprised me.
They implemented my recommendation.
Now, I receive a weekly email between bills that tells me my usage for that week. And I am able to spot if something is amiss and don't have to wait an entire billing period -- while the meter is still running -- to discover it.
Now, I don't presume that I was the first to provide that recommendation, or that they went through with it because of my issue. Something like that takes more time to develop and execute than they had from the time of my first complaint and suggestion.
So someone besides me had to have thought it was a good idea. But the value of that idea did not trickle down to the customer service reps or to the office of the president, or at least they had no interest at all in acknowledging it, or admitting I had a valid point.
Though if they had, I'd not only be naming the company, but praising them to my friends about how well the company treated me, how awesome this service is, and how they should use this company for electricity as well.
How much better could companies do if they only trained and empowered their customer service reps to treat people as people and not means to and end? If they trained them to listen instead of follow a script?
Update: See how a Virginia woman was charged (and is fighting) a $15,000 utility bill.