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PSEG customer satisfaction dips but performance measured as strong

A PSEG Long Island crew performs work on

A PSEG Long Island crew performs work on Montauk Highway in West Islip on July 10, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

It's been 16 months since PSEG Long Island took over day-to-day management of the region's electric grid, and while it met or exceeded all but one measure of performance last year, one important measure has been slipping in recent months.

For two of the past three quarterly surveys, the utility's score on the JD Power customer satisfaction survey has seen a small but steady decline. From a high of 597 points out of a possible 1,000 in the July-through-September 2014 survey, the utility has seen a drop to 584 in the fourth quarter of last year, and then 576 points in the January-through-March 2015 survey.

The overall trend makes it more difficult for PSEG to achieve an internal goal of cracking the 600 mark on the survey when the April-through-June survey is in. LIPA and PSEG together last year scored 532. LIPA alone scored 519 the year before.

When PSEG took over last year, it began lifting the LIPA score, a trend that continues. Further, PSEG's recent scores, while declining, are well above the 565 level that would affect a PSEG performance bonus.

"Sure it's a concern," LIPA trustee Jeff Greenfield said. PSEG, he suggested, was stepping into a role long held by LIPA, and criticism comes with the turf. "They're not the new kid on the block anymore," he said, adding he believes the utility is "working very hard and they are very committed."

"We're not at the alarm stage," said Elkan Abramowitz, who chairs the PSEG contract oversight committee of the LIPA board. "I get the sense they take that all very seriously . . . If anybody thought that wasn't the case, we'd make noise about it."

In an interview last week after the figures were reported to the LIPA board of trustees, David Daly, PSEG Long Island's president and chief operating officer, focused on the months of accomplishments while acknowledging a "plateau" on the customer satisfaction trend that his team needs to work beyond. PSEG, he said, has transformed LIPA's storm-response process, its call center operations and hundreds of other processes.

Still, he said, "We need to break through to the next level. We need to take the second step."

The JD Power survey takes into account factors such as the cost of electricity, a utility's communication efforts, its ability to keep the lights on, outage restoration and billing. LIPA's high rates had always been cited as a factor in its low score compared with other large utilities across the country.

But PSEG has had four months of steady power-supply charge decreases since January, and while it has managed several small storms, it has yet to be tested by a big one. During the LIPA trustee meeting last week, PSEG vice president Dan Eichhorn reported that specific billing complaints about PSEG to the Long Island office of the Department of Public Service numbered just 74 in the first three months of the year, compared with 232 for the period last year. The Department of Public Service said total complaints about PSEG were 363 in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 464 for the same period last year.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," said Julia Bovey, director of the Department of Public Service Long Island office. "While we have the highest expectations for customer satisfaction, we believe satisfaction has improved a lot. Improving people's opinions is harder."

Daly said the leveling-off of the outside customer satisfaction numbers was "not unusual" given how much is happening at PSEG at the moment. The company is in the midst of a state proceeding for an annual 4 percent rate hike, never popular with customers. It's been embroiled in regional disputes over power-transmission line projects, and it has filed suit against North Hempstead over the town's requirement that LIPA utility poles carry small warning labels listing a toxic preservative.

John Hazen, senior director at JD Power, noted PSEG's overall improvement thus far this year compared with last and said a final wave of surveys remain. JD Power talks to 1,200 to 1,300 PSEG customers for the full annual survey. "There's no one magic bullet," he said about improving customer satisfaction scores. "You have to do a lot of things correctly from a customer experience."

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