A PSEG truck in  Commack on July 2, 2019.

A PSEG truck in  Commack on July 2, 2019. Credit: James Carbone

Wait times to get through to PSEG telephone service agents spiked more than 1,500% during 2022 amid staffing problems and call-volume fluctuations, just as LIPA is preparing a complex new rate plan that could send phone inquiries even higher.

Figures released Wednesday show customers waited an average 545 seconds, or slightly more than 9 minutes, for a rep to answer their phone call during 2022, with fewer than 29.2% of calls answered in less than 30 seconds. That compares with an average 33 seconds in 2021, when around 80% if calls were answered by an agent in 30 seconds. 

An increase in call volumes last year was only partly to blame. Call volume in 2022 topped 1.4 million, compared with 1.12 million in 2021. A moratorium on shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 helped reduce customer inquiries, but collections and other matters were restarted in 2022. 

The average time for a rep to handle customer issues once they had answered the call also jumped last year, to 7.25 minutes, from 6.5 minutes in 2021. In the August through December period, the average handle time for a call was up to 8 minutes, LIPA reported at a recent board of trustee meeting.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Wait times to get through to PSEG telephone service agents spiked more than 1,500% during 2022 amid staffing problems and call-volume fluctuations
  • Figures released Wednesday show customers waited an average of slightly more than 9 minutes for a rep to answer their phone call during 2022.
  • The problems with the call center come at a critical moment for LIPA because next year, the utility plans to roll out new time-of-day rates

Acknowledging 2022 was “not a good year” for the PSEG call center, LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone told trustees: “I had people call me personally saying, ‘I can’t get through to the call center. Can you have somebody call me?’”

LIPA trustees weren’t happy.

“This is outrageous to me,” said trustee Laureen Harris. “I see these statistics as incredibly unacceptable.”

“This is such a huge item for us,” said LIPA vice chairman Mark Fischl. “This is the place where we touch our customers most to interact with us. We have to get this right.”

Problems in the call centers could affect PSEG’s compensation from LIPA. A report card for 2022 presented at the board meeting shows at least two service metrics tied to the call center performance could be missed as a result of the problems, affecting some $289,000 in compensation.

A perfect storm of factors, including staffing shortages, recruitment challenges, increased call volumes, long training times and new work habits during the pandemic, combined to the tank the numbers, said Carolyn MacKool, director of customer experience oversight for LIPA. The problem is so pronounced that she has been working with PSEG’s on a “Call Center Get Well” program designed to reduce customer wait times.

There has also been management turnover issues at the call centers, a decision by call center leaders “not to hire for open positions” as volumes increased, and a “poor forecast model [that] indicated fewer people were needed” to staff the call center, according to a LIPA briefing on the matter.

Dave Lyons, interim president and chief operating officer of PSEG Long Island, noted the Get Well plan “has contributed to a month-over-month improvement for customer hold times since September." In January, he noted, hold times were cut to 6 minutes, and are expected to be cut further, to 5.8 minutes in February. 

He noted 25 new call center agents completed training in December and joined the staff in January. There are also 30 temporary agents that will help fill in at least through June. And he noted that the average time to handle customer calls is also decreasing, helping to free up more agents to handle calls.

PSEG, which operates the grid under contract to LIPA, also plans to implement programs to reduce repeat and abandoned calls, including repairing a callback feature and adding a new credit card vendor, while increasing self-service options.

Problems with the call center come at a particularly critical moment for LIPA. Next year, the utility plans to roll out new time-of-day rates, which will shift residential customers to plans that offer discounts for shifting their usage away from the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. summer weekday. Call center reps are expected to play a big part in explaining the plans, which will permit ratepayers to shift out of a flat rate if they opt out of the time-of-day rate.

"In 2024, when we go to time of day, that could be a more complicated, longer call,” MacKool said. “I would expect longer handle time.”

The forecast for 2023 isn’t rosy, either. Average speed of answer this year is forecast to be between 180 and 264 seconds, with a slightly improved 41% of calls answered in 30 seconds and an average handle time of the same 7.25 minutes as 2022.

“The forecast is horrendous,” Harris said. “This is just not acceptable for our customers.”

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Summer tourism ... Shark sightings on LI . . . Dino-Mite Vintage . . . What's Up on Long Island . . . Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV

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