Friday, April 27, 2007

Dealing with utilities

Nothing is quite as time consuming as dealing with utility companies. Your phone, your electricity, your gas. You name it, they’re all the same. Inevitably they make a mistake on your bill and you have to call them up and deal with their infamous customer service representatives.

I recently learned that many of them are now outsourced, much like the one I dealt with just this afternoon. They work from their homes and connect to their supervisors through the Internet. I guess it helps with overhead, but it sure doesn’t help with the call time. On this little adventure my electric company failed to send me a bill. I called them up when I knew it was time to pay it, asking where my bill was, and low and behold it was a day late. They were very understanding and sent me a new bill and agreed to waive the late fee. I had never been late, ever, and they gave me a one-time courtesy waive. I wondered why I was using up my one-time waiver for something that wasn’t my fault, but I wasn’t about to argue and draw a 20 minute phone conversation into an hour long one. I hung up and knew, sure enough, I’d be calling them in a month.

They never do what they say they will. I paid my bill and waited for next month.

Sure enough, I just got my bill and there was the late charge. So I called them up. Even after having gone through all of this before, and all the notes being in their computer system about the previous conversation, it STILL took 30 minutes and 2 departments to get my late fee removed. It makes me wonder how efficient their power plants are.

Here’s another kicker. I also had a $25 credit. No reason, just for ‘being a good customer’ they said. Right. Companies don’t give money away just to be nice. I figure they were involved in some kind of settlement involving billing. I heard the same thing about another local power company, and they must have all been affected by it.

Congratulations! We love our customers, so we’re giving you $25! No strings attached! (Because we’ve been over-billing you for 20 years)

Why did I call and complain that they gave me money? Because all too often they will change their terms and turn a price hike into a rebate. $25 might seem great until you find out 6 months later you were automatically entered into a 12 month contract. Not the best information to get when you may want to switch services. Bam, $100 early termination fee.

But you accepted your $25 gift, so you must have agreed to be moved to the plan!

ALWAYS scrutinize your bills. Keep a record of them, preferably in an Excel spreadsheet and compare them to previous years. If anything looks off, demand an explanation. Utility bills provide a lot of information, but you need to teach yourself how to read them correctly. Watch out for estimated billing also. You have a meter on your house, do an audit a few times a year to make sure the electric company is on the up and up. The utility companies aren’t your friend, and should you ever have to contact their customer service you had better have good documentation.

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