Despite economic downturn, U.S. consumers still rate their utility service a good value

NORTH SALEM, N.Y., Feb. 19, 2003 — Although large numbers of American consumers feel worse off financially than a year ago, they still say they’re getting their money’s worth from their energy utility, according to a new national survey of more than 800 households. And these same residential customers continue to give their local energy supplier higher marks for trust, service and value than U.S. businesses in general, according to the same study.

In particular, California residents register some of the most improved value and satisfaction scores from a year ago, despite the fallout from the state’s energy and budget problems. Indeed, California consumers report lower bills — as much as $22 less per month — than a year ago, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, residents in adjacent Western states give their utilities lower scores and recall higher monthly bills, according to the same nationwide survey. Overall, residents in regions where electricity deregulation has been attempted or is underway — such as the Pacific Coast and the Northeast — are more negative than customers in other parts of the country, the survey finds.

And despite higher rates and more power interruptions than national norms, electric co-operatives continue to enjoy the highest levels of consumer support, the survey points out. But the gap between co-op and municipal utilities is narrowing, according to the year-end data, while investor-owned utilities continue to lag in key customer perceptions of value, service and performance.

These results are part of the year-end national residential customer survey conducted by RKS Research & Consulting, a national market research and public opinion polling firm. RKS completed telephone interviews during the month of October, 2002 with 809 heads of U.S. households. More than a quarter of these interviews — 27 percent — involved follow-ups with participants in the RKS summer, 2002 “Grassroots” survey of trust and credibility issues involving U.S. businesses and their leaders.

This latest probe of American households finds widespread worry about personal finances. Nearly a quarter of consumers interviewed — 24 percent — declare they are worse off financially than a year ago; another third maintain that their financial situation remains unchanged. Only five percent say they anticipated such worsening financial conditions.

In an important finding that demonstrates the value of utility outreach and communications programs, these same consumers who admit they are worse off financially still register favorable ratings for their energy providers in the areas of trust, service and satisfaction. Despite the decline in their fortunes, these customers are less critical of their local utility; indeed, they register high marks in the areas of access and convenience, cost management, community involvement, and the environment.

“These positive national trends underscore the importance of treating customer relationships as an ongoing process, not a series of isolated transactions,” said David J. Reichman, RKS chairman and chief executive officer. “The high marks for electric co-operatives, plus the continued positive perceptions of the local utility compared to business institutions in general, demonstrate the need to make continuous improvements in systems, services, and communications that strengthen consumer support of the hometown energy supplier.”

The full RKS national residential survey report analyzes and compares data by national as well as regional benchmarks, including selected market leader utilities. Along with detailed findings in such areas as trust, value, power reliability, and performance in meeting customer expectations, the report outlines actionable recommendations for improvement in specific dimensions of customer service and relationships.

Now in its 29th year of business, RKS Research & Consulting designs and conducts both syndicated an customized market research and public opinion polling for energy and natural resources clients, including their major associations. RKS operates from headquarters in North Salem, NY, plus field offices in New Jersey, Florida, and California. Further information can be found at: www.rksresearch.com.