By Harry S. Margolis
I've now been on the phone with Reliant Energy Northeast for over half an hour trying to resolve some billing confusion. I had made the mistake of calling in response to a threatening letter I had received titled:
Notice of Potential Return to Default Services
It stated that I owed Boston Edison $131.40 and demanded that I send that amount to Reliant Energy instead. This request and the address were highlighted in yellow. If not, it said that the outstanding balance "may be referred to debt collection agencies and are subject to the appropriate legal remedies provided by the laws of the State of Massachusetts" (never mind that we're a Commonwealth).
Then it asks me to disregard the notice if I've already paid Boston Edison or Reliant. This last request, unfortunately, was buried at the bottom of the letter.
In any case, I've never paid Boston Edison or Reliant anything. I receive my electricity from Nstar.
So I called the toll free number that was provided on the letter.The person I talked to couldn't help or explain anything, but offered to connect me to their billing department. After being on hold for more than 10 minutes and having to listen to repeated promotions for some "app" I was connected to a woman who also couldn't help. When she couldn't find information on my account, she asked for my Social Security or drivers license number, which I refused to give. She then put me on hold again and finally came back on saying that she couldn't help me because she only handles Texas accounts. She gave me another toll-free number to call, which I did.
At this point, I had been on the phone for more than half an hour. The person I reached at this second number told me that he couldn't help me because he only handles business accounts, but he connected me with someone who handles residential accounts, who finally had some answers. Now, after 40 minutes on the phone, the gentleman explained to me that Nstar and Boston Edison are the same company, but that he had no billing information. I would have to contact Nstar directly to determine why they think I owe them $131.40.
He explained that under my contract with Reliant, they provide the energy but that Nstar delivers it. I asked that my contract with Reliant Energy be terminated at the end of my one-year contract.
So, what can we learn about customer service from this scenario?
Stay in touch with your customers. One of the reasons the notice I received was confusing was that I have only a vague memory of the telephone call that convinced me to sign up with Reliant. Since then my service and invoices have continued to come from Nstar. My second contact with Reliant was the formal notice I received. How about some correspondence in the mean time about what a great job Reliant has been doing in reducing my energy costs and explaining how they're able to do so?
Send clear correspondence. Much of the confusion had to do with the fact that Reliant used the name Boston Edison instead of Nstar. They should have knowledge of the customer's experience and not use different terminology.
Don't start with a threat. Reliant sent a very formal letter, appearing to threaten termination of electric service and referral to a collection agency. Then at the very bottom it in effect said never mind if I've already paid Reliant or Boston Edison -- again the confusion since I've never paid "Boston Edison" at all. What about a letter explaining the whole situation, followed up by something more threatening if I still didn't pay. And perhaps don't be so quick to send such notices. My guess is that the notice came because I was late in paying Nstar because we were on vacation at the beginning of August.
Provide a useful customer service telephone number. It took me over half an hour on the phone and the fourth customer service representative before I found someone who could actually provide answers. Why not provide his telephone number first, or at least train the first person I contacted to get me to the person with the answers directly?
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