How to fight your electric bill

How to fight your electric bill

People complain about high electricity bills. Often they’re ignored. Here’s how a prosecutor shows you how to take care of bad customer service reps who don’t care.

A Texas “power” story

Power plants across Texas fail. People have to cope with rolling blackouts. That makes Watchdog Nation long for the good old days when people complained about smart meters and their bills going up. Good old days? That would be before the great ice storms of 2011 in North Texas.

Although The Watchdog can’t solve the rolling blackouts, we will continue to shine a light on the Texas electricity system.

Customer service is questionable

Today’s victims, er, electricity customers: John and Mary Brasher of Wichita Falls. John Brasher is a 25-year veteran prosecutor in the Wichita County district attorney’s office who handles appeals. After his smart meter was installed, his next bill came in four times higher than the previous month’s. So the couple launched an appeal with TXU Energy.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Mary Brasher called customer service. She got no help. “I knew I was talking to someone overseas. His phrases didn’t sound right. I felt like he was reading me a canned answer. He kept repeating the same phrases over and over,” she said.

Next, the couple wrote TXU. They even diagnosed their own problem, telling TXU that their old meter reading was most likely inaccurate.

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Difficulty communicating

Here are excerpts from their ensuing correspondence.

TXU: “Dear Mr. Brasher … the meter was accurately read.”

Brasher: “Did you even read my last email? … Where is the old meter? Can it be tested?”

TXU: “All bill dates and due amounts are continuing as normal.”

Brasher: “You are absolutely wrong. … That is crazy, and I do not appreciate your canned answer one bit. I am notifying the Texas Public Utility Commission. Additionally, I would appreciate a chance to review and read the old meter myself. I am sure you have it stored some place. I expect to receive a real answer from you, not a canned answer.”

You can be an electricity company prosecutor, too

That didn’t happen, so John Brasher filed a complaint with the PUC: “TXU will provide us no information about whether the ‘old’ meter can be located and read. … We would like a reasonable explanation, rather than the arrogant and condescending responses we have been given by TXU.”

The prosecutor continues, “If, in fact, the old meter can no longer be read merely because it has been removed, then that is a loophole that needs to be closed. Otherwise, TXU can claim any electrical usage it wants to without the consumer having any recourse. We can only assume that this is in fact what TXU is doing, since it will not provide any answers to us.”

His PUC complaint got everyone’s attention, and finally the facts came out.

Who is to blame?

Oncor Electric Delivery says its reader misread the Brashers’ meter two weeks before the old meter was swapped for the smart meter. Oncor realized the error and notified TXU. But TXU didn’t tell the Brashers.

Turns out the old meters are stored in a warehouse, and photographs are taken showing the final reading. Until PUC got involved, though, nobody bothered to tell the Brashers that. “Seems to be a straightforward question,” Mary Brasher said.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson accepts blame: “Obviously, we fell a little short. … There was a disconnect here, and I know that’s frustrating to the customer.” (Yes, he said “disconnect.”)

“The rep that responded didn’t connect the dots that maybe there was an issue when they changed the meter.”

TXU is tracking the error, he says, and spreading the word among its personnel about what went wrong. As for taking the complaint to the PUC, he adds, “We certainly don’t want that for a number of reasons.”

The Brashers’ bill is now reconciled. But the couple and TXU aren’t. The Brashers say they’re switching electricity companies.

There’s good news here. If part of the problem is, in fact, canned answers from overseas customer service reps who don’t always understand the complexities of the company they serve, TXU offers a better solution: The company has announced that it is adding new call centers in Abilene and Lubbock and expanding a call center in Irving. The moves are supposed to create and save 500 jobs.

Where are the remaining TXU customer service jobs?

“We don’t disclose specific numbers for our customer contact centers, but with this reconfiguration, the company will have a 70 percent domestic, 30 percent Latin America mix,” Patterson said.

Watchdog Nation has previously reported that TXU call centers were situated in Bangalore, India; Krakow, Poland; and the Philippines.

Those overseas outposts are gone — replaced, Patterson says, by what TXU calls “near-shore operations.” These, he said, are “in Spanish-speaking regions, and they consistently provide us with cost-effective and high-quality service for our customers.”

The Brashers say they don’t care who answers the phone as long as they get correct and honest answers.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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