Natural gas supplier-related complaints in Georgia filed by consumers with regulators at the Georgia PSC have dropped to the lowest annual level in over eight years.
While overall, customer complaints about natural gas suppliers in Georgia are at their lowest in the entire 20 years of deregulation, the most significant developments have taken place in the last eight years. Though the first decade saw angry customers making tens of thousands of complaints per month, most cases were often related to the state's early efforts to create, enact, and enforce regulations (especially against slamming) and also featured a revolving door of providers entering and exiting the Georgia marketplace.
The past eight years have seen the natural gas market in Georgia mature and allow customers to reap the benefits of competing suppliers. This period is not only characterized by a more stable cast of providers but also a trend showing a steady year to year decline in complaints. What drove the decline, however, begged for research.
GeorgiaGasSavings.com undertook this study to uncover the change behind this trend in customer complaints in Georgia's natural gas market. Data for the eight year period from January, 2010 to December, 2017 was obtained from the Georgia PSC's monthly Gas Marketer Scorecard. The scorecard records the number of monthly complaints (billing, service, and deceptive marketing) against each of the state's deregulated gas providers.
According to the study, the number of complaints to the Georgia PSC during the period of 2010 and 2017 is characterized by two distinct phases.
The first phase (January 2010 through March 2012) shows rising customer dissatisfaction with natural gas providers. Complaints for the first two months of 2010 hit 127, among the highest of the whole study. The rate averaged 89 per month for the remaining nine months of the year. From January, 2011 through April 2011, the rate rose to an average of 104 complaints per month.
From April to May, 2011, the first of three retail natural gas satisfaction studies by J.D. Power showed roughly one third of customers were dissatisfied with their provider. During this same period, wholesale gas prices rose and would continue climbing until July, topping $4.00/mmBTU. All told for 2011, the year finished at 1229 complaints (12.14% increase over 2010), featuring six months (October 2011 through March 2012) where complaints easily topped 100.
The second phase (April 2012 to December, 2017) shows a decreasing number of customer complaints about natural gas providers. Between July 2011 and April 2012, natural gas prices fell by nearly 50%, going from the NYMEX price of $4.98/mmBTU on March 31, 2011 to just $2.06/mmBTU on April 25, 2012. A year to date comparison of PSC plan records between July 2011 standard fixed natural gas rates and July 2012 fixed rates show the lowest residential prices fell by $10/month.
In the remaining period from April, 2012 to December 2017, complaints decrease by some 30%. That trend featured these data waypoints:
- Following March, 2012 to the end of the year, monthly complaint totals stayed below 95.
- March 2013 to January 2014 became the longest continual period of monthly complaints below 100.
- Fall, 2014 — Complaints hit new low of 39 in November.
- 2016 — Highest number of monthly complaints reaches 65, lowest hits 24. Annual total is 531, 25.11% below 2015
- 2017 — Monthly complaints never rise above 63 for whole year; lowest total is 23. Average monthly complaint level is 35/month. Annual complaint total is just 483, 9.04% below 2016.
Billing complaints are by far the most common type of complaint found in the study period. While it was initially assumed that complaints would be tied to cold weather effects, the association of winter time complaints versus heating degree days was not always consistent through the study period.
Service complaints are the next highest category of complaint. Years 2010 to early 2012 were unique in that they showed clusters of service complaints where three or more providers each shared more than 5 service complaints in one month. Later on, the number of service complaints fell and this monthly clustering no longer occurred.
Deceptive Marketing complaints routinely had the least number of any complaint type for any given month with totals rarely rising above 3. There are three instances where there were 5 or more —and all these instances (the last in March, 2016) involved the same company, Commerce Energy. Just Energy acquired Commerce Energy in 2009 and rebranded it in 2017.
In 2009, most U.S. utilities' social media efforts focused on one-way communications such as mailings, news releases and marketing messages. The exception occurred during emergencies; in 2010, SCANA is identified as one of 8 that used social media in their crisis communication plans.
Georgia's natural gas providers established social media and online communication platforms early. SCANA and Gas South both established Twitter accounts in 2009. In 2010, Georgia-based FireSide Natural Gas set up its Twitter and Facebook accounts and Gas South established its Facebook account, as well. SCANA began posting YouTube videos in 2012. Gas South launched its blog, The Hot Spot, on August 6, 2012.
Mobile app development caught on big in 2010. While not all natural gas suppliers in Georgia leapt into mobile app development, those who did gradually saw fewer complaints. For example, in January 2011, complaints to the PSC about GasSouth hit a record high of 38. The next month, Gas South launched an app and there after complaints seldom got above 25.
The period from July 2011 to April 2012 looks like falling natural gas prices were driving the drop in complaints. However, while cheap natural gas might have eased (if not accelerated) the reduction in customer complaints, social media usage by natural gas providers had been evolving into a provider-customer dialog.
During the period of July 2011 to April 2012, J.D. Power's second installment of natural gas customer studies in Georgia detected that customer satisfaction had improved due to gas suppliers “providing more accessible and helpful means of answering customer questions and addressing general concerns”, resulting in more “highly satisfied and committed customers”.
While improved communication might have nudged the complaint reduction process into motion, it's possible that it kept the ball rolling. Following 2012, many of Georgia's natural gas providers expanded communications with their customers through the channels the customers preferred: social media sites, blogs, videos, and by developing of mobile apps.
Customers discovered that when providers furnished them with useful information and answered questions via the channels they preferred to use, they were able to resolve problems to their satisfaction far more quickly.
Weather data for Atlanta from wunderground.com was used to supply both Average Heating Degree Day and Mean Temperature/Month measurements.
Weather effects that might have influenced complaints show up in data tracking as delayed by thirty days. That is, a billing complaint filed in February reflects the impact of weather in January because that was when the natural gas was used.
For the entire 5 year period, the lowest average of mean temperatures per month for winter was 48.4°F. The coldest of all mean temperatures per month was 35.6°F in January, 2014 (related to the Polar Vortex).
Extreme winter weather likely played a role in increasing complaints early on in the study period. The data show correlations to specific weather events during the 2009-2010 winter and the colder than average 2010-2011 winter. The coldest mean temperatures/month were 38°F (January) and 39°F (February) of 2010 and 37°F and 39°F for December 2010 and January 2011.
Following 2011, the relationship between high complaints during cold weather decouples. In some instances, as over all complaints decreased so did the impact of extreme winter weather. For example, the famed 2014 Polar Vortex incursion pushed below normal cold into several Georgia cities. While complaints for this record-cold period hit 100, they were still less than the 145 complaints for the same period in Winter 2011/2012 when average temperatures were 10°F warmer.
For all winters following 2014, the number of monthly complaints for the same December through March period never rises above 89. (Note: winter complaints do rise to 90 in January, 2018 but this is thought to be related to increasing natural gas prices.)