No one likes getting an energy bill, so opening the envelope to find not one but two, or even three bills, all with different amounts owed, can be quite a shock.
Being unable to get through on the phone to find out what the heck is going on just compounds the frustration.
But that’s what has happened to some CPS Energy customers, because of decisions we made several months ago that have had cascading negative consequences.
We’ve been working overtime to fix the problems and we want you to know: we’re sorry. CPS Energy is committed to making customers whole by ensuring that despite the snafus, customers will never pay for more energy than they actually consumed–they just may pay on a different schedule.
What follows is a full explanation to our customers to help them understand what happened, as well as what we’re doing to fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We want to be transparent about this: the truth is, we’re not there yet.” said Senior Vice President of Customer Services Maria Koudouris, adding that much work remains to resolve these issues. “We appreciate our customers’ patience and apologize for the inconvenience.”
Over the past several years, CPS Energy has reduced its meter reading staff, not through layoffs, but by not replacing people when they retire. The growing use of digital meters, which need fewer readers (they can drive by in a truck and get readings electronically), and the future use of smart meters, which don’t need readers at all, made this a logical and prudent business decision.
But in the interim period, before those meters are fully deployed – likely by 2017 – CPS Energy hired contract meter readers to fill the gap.
It became apparent during the summer of 2012 that the contract meter readers were making too many errors. The contract was ended, and CPS Energy then relied on existing staff and increased the number of estimated meter readings.
Estimating meter reading is not unusual in the utility industry. All utilities estimate a small percentage of their meters. Estimates are usually done when meters are inaccessible, by locked gates, shrubbery or dogs. CPS Energy has always estimated some of the more than 1 million meter reads it must do each month, often less than 1 percent annually.
It’s important to understand that under normal circumstances, when a meter is estimated (based on past usage, time of year and other factors) one month, it is corrected the next. A customer will never ultimately pay for more power than she uses.
But as the months wore on, CPS Energy found itself estimating some meters multiple months as it sought to make up for the meter reader shortage.
By December of last year, more than 22 percent of meters were being estimated.
“Our original goal, which was to increase the accuracy of our meter reads, was a good one,” said Koudouris. “But we terminated the contract prematurely, and that caused its own set of problems.”
As the number of estimated reads increased, the number of “unbillable accounts” also increased. That means CPS Energy’s automated billing system was rejecting accounts because of all the estimation, and sending bills to another area to be manually double checked.
Unbilled accounts began increasing much faster than customer service staff could manually correct them.
When some of the corrected accounts were finally released to be billed, some customers received multiple bills, some owing a substantial balance, since they hadn’t received a bill in months.
Many customers, not surprisingly, presumed these bills were the result of a billing system error, not realizing they hadn’t received a statement from CPS Energy for months. As more customers began calling in, CPS Energy’s phone lines and customer service staff became overwhelmed.
Customer complaints reached the media, which called for an explanation — and for compassion for those hardest hit by big bills. By then, CPS Energy had already launched an internal review, and authorized customer service representatives to use more flexibility to deal with affected customers, such as extending due dates and creating payment arrangements.
By March, the number of unbillable accounts had grown to more than 40,000, with more than 1,000 new ones entering the system each working day.
In February, a new contract for temporary meter reading staff was put in place. Training was completed by June. These contractors are still in the field today, and their results are reviewed daily for accuracy and completeness.
Customer service staff had also requested help clearing the backlog of accounts.
Because customer privacy is important, not just anyone can be hired and then immediately start working with customer data. From mid-March to early May, 36 temporary support staff were trained and authorized to make corrections to billing data.
Thanks to tireless efforts and dedication of our customer service staff, all backlogged accounts were corrected and bills rendered by July 30.
In July, 98.9 percent of the meters were read. CPS Energy will continue to estimate a small portion of the 1 million total each month, but as digital meter installations increase, that number will continue to shrink.
The call center also increased staffing and extended hours to better accommodate customer needs — but with the usual higher summer call volume, wait times are still longer than usual.
As we continue to resolve billing questions, we urge customers to call during off-peak hours if possible, such as late morning and early afternoon. Noon, and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. are our busiest call times.
Using Manage My Account at cpsenergy.com is another alternative: customers can start, stop and transfer service, set up payment plans and confirm that payments have been received.
CPS Energy has reviewed the circumstances that led to these billing problems. Decisions were analyzed and procedures have been put in place, including greater communication across departments, to make sure nothing like this happens again.
“Our customer service staff has been working diligently to resolve these issues,” said Koudouris, “and I want to acknowledge their hard work.”
CPS Energy has been proud to rank high in customer satisfaction in the past, she noted, and employees are working hard to regain that place with customers.
As part of that process, we offer a sincere apology for the inconvenience caused to the real owners of CPS Energy — you, our customers.