ONG's customers complain about prices : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

This is from the Feb 2, but still thought you all may want to take a look at it... This is sad for these people! I don't know how people as described in the following article are supposed to pay their bills!!

ONG's customers complain about prices 2001-02-02 By Gregory Potts Business Writer

WITH natural gas prices more than twice as high as they were this time last year, customers are flooding Oklahoma Natural Gas' call center seeking relief from their high bills. Many of the callers are facing a financial crisis. Because of the higher cost of gas and higher consumption levels during this cold winter, some customers are facing bills two or three times higher - or more - than a year ago.

Some say they simply can't pay the huge bills.

As a result, emotions among customers range from frustration and fear to shock and anger, said Dorma Lazzaro, an ONG customer service representative. Lazzaro admits that the situation has raised the stress level at her job.

"The calls are stressful because you feel for these people," Lazzaro said.

These days Lazzaro and her peers are offering customers emotional support, mini-lectures on the economic principle of supply and demand, and a whole lot of "Let's Make a Deal." Lazzaro said it is not hard at all for her to understand what people are going through.

"It's just a difficult time for everybody. I have a high gas bill myself," she said.

The company has never had to deal with a price spike of this magnitude in its history, said Don Sherry, a company spokesman. Although ONG did use bill inserts and media stories to warn customers of possible price increases this winter, Sherry said many still have been caught off guard by the sizable increases.

"We've never seen anything of this magnitude," he said.

The call center is taking about 6,000 calls daily. That's about 50 percent more than at this time last year. The high call volume, along with a growing average length of each call, has made hold times spike, further irritating customers.

Esther Stiles, a call center supervisor, said the average hold time is more than 15 minutes. And customer service representative Yolanda Anderson said some of her callers are waiting more than 30 minutes, especially at busy times.

Stiles said the company's goal of keeping hold times under two minutes has become impossible. She believes her staff is holding up well under the barrage of calls from frustrated customers and those who've reached a point of despair. But most callers end up satisfied with the service they receive by the time a call ends, Stiles said.

"They may not be happy about the size of their bill, but I think they're satisfied that we work with them the best that we can," Stiles said.

ONG's most common solution is its budget payment plan. The plan allows a customer to pay the same rate each month. Bills are calculated on an annual average, based on a customer's billing history. That makes for higher bills in the summer when gas bills typically are lower. But it also means customers, especially now, would pay much lower bills in the winter.

For instance, Lazzaro took a call this week from a woman whose bill was nearly $200. After being placed on the budget plan, her new bill was only about $80.

ONG said it is signing up about 1,300 people on the budget plan every day. At the end of December, the company had 79,679 customers on the plan. By the end of last week, the number had grown to 112,135 - a 41 percent increase.

Anderson said even entire offices have called to sign up for the plan. A group of workers at an office in Shawnee signed up this week passing the phone from person to person without hanging up. When the call was over, she had 10 new households on the plan.

The budget plan is costing ONG a lot of money because it basically allows customers to defer payment interest free, Sherry said. The company has to go ahead and pay for the gas it provides even if it's months before they receive payment from customers for that gas.

Because of a lost opportunity to earn interest, Sherry said the company estimates that the budget plan will cost ONG about $1.5 million this year, based on an 8 percent interest rate.

But when customers are really angry, Anderson said she just has to let them express their feelings.

"Most of the anger subsides once they get a chance to vent," Anderson said.

Still, she can't help but bristle a little when people get personal. For instance, one caller said to her, "'I bet your children aren't freezing.'"

Other callers express suspicion that someone is trying to cheat them.

"I just wonder who is responsible for this," one of Lazzaro's callers said Wednesday. "I think somebody's jerking us around."

Sherry said he understands why people have those suspicions, but ONG has nothing to gain from the high gas prices. That's because Oklahoma law prohibits gas providers from making a profit on the sale of gas, he said.

"We recover from our customers exactly what we pay for the gas," Sherry said. "Then we are allowed to charge for our service, which fundamentally is delivering the gas. The rate is regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. And in fact, we had a rate decrease of about $20 million this year. But consumers haven't seen the benefit of the rate decrease because the commodity cost has gone up."

-- Tess (, February 14, 2001

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