AEP's line crews are a front line point of contact for our customers. The customer experience is a high priority for AEP.
Customers judge their experience with any company in terms of cost, quality and service. They also measure value by how well a company responds when something goes wrong. Demonstrating that we care about our customers in every interaction we have with them is the hallmark of a positive customer experience. Providing reliable, quality, affordable service is just the beginning. We have to understand what our customers want, sometimes before they do, and be ready to meet those expectations. If we do it right, the payback for AEP is brand loyalty and a high degree of satisfaction for our customers.
The customer experience encompasses every touch point we have with our customers, whether on the phone, with a line crew in the field, through billing and online transactions, or through the interactions our employees have while serving in the community.
Because the customer experience is a high priority at AEP, we have re-energized our efforts to improve customer satisfaction. In 2014, we reintroduced customer satisfaction into our incentive compensation plans for employees through action-oriented, measurable customer experience work plans that are being implemented by our operating companies. These plans include new and enhanced technology solutions, targeted communication and education efforts, and improved product offerings, such as energy efficiency and home warranty programs where applicable.
We are also building a new baseline of customer satisfaction survey data from all customer classes (residential, industrial, commercial) to benchmark against national and regional peers. Our goal is to ultimately incorporate the overall customer satisfaction measure itself into incentive compensation for employees, similar to current metrics associated with environmental and safety performance.
We also know that, increasingly, technology is playing a critical role in how we communicate with our customers. We know electronic engagement is important to them because about 43 percent of customers have already shared their email addresses and about 18 percent are enrolled in paperless billing, a slight increase from 2012.
In 2013, customers conducted approximately 15 million online transactions with us, a nearly 19 percent increase from 2012. Web traffic also increased for both desktop and mobile users. We experienced an 82 percent increase in overall transactions compared with 2012. Approximately 735,541 residential, commercial and industrial customers receive their bills electronically. At the end of 2013, 44 percent of customer bill payments were being processed online and electronically. Online bill pay and electronic billing is a win-win for us and our customers; it is more efficient and eco-friendly and enhances customer satisfaction.
AEP prides itself on quick, responsive and consistent customer service. In 2013, the number of calls that came into our call centers from customers slightly increased from 2012. Our focus has been to provide customers with a variety of channels for service, including online and self-service options over the phone. Enhanced self-service options empower customers to access and update account information, make payment arrangements and receive outage restoration information.
Customer acceptance of the self-service options aided in reducing our average speed of answer, or how long it takes to answer a call, by 15 seconds in 2013. However, the average time we’re spending on the phone with a customer increased by three seconds. This increase is attributed to the amount of time our associates are speaking with customers to resolve their requests. While more customers are opting for self-service, the more complex calls must still be handled by our call centers. The complexity of the call and length of time on the phone with a customer are directly correlated, which explains the increase in time spent on the phone.
AEP continues to be a leader in customer service with respect to our large commercial and industrial customers. The AEP National Key Accounts program continues to be recognized by customers as one of the top national account programs in the industry. The team was recently recognized by the nation’s leading chain and multi-site businesses for exceptional customer service in the Edison Electric Institute’s 2014 National Key Accounts program. This is the third consecutive year the AEP National Key Accounts team has been recognized for its sustained efforts to deliver excellent customer service. The team represents AEP and its operating companies by managing corporate energy and real estate relationships with key national retail and industrial customers, providing them with a single point of contact. This is important to these customers who operate multi-site, multi-state operations. Our team helps manage their complex accounts, provides economic and business development services and serves as a technology resource.
Customer delinquency rates can be a barometer of the general health of the economy. The positive trends from previous years of reduced bill delinquencies did not continue into 2013. Total AEP active account balances that were delinquent increased 14 percent. The picture was bleaker in the residential and nonresidential delinquency levels for those who were behind on their bills 60 days or longer, which was 36 percent higher than in 2012. In addition, more and more customers are entering into deferred payment agreements. The inconsistent growth of the economy affects these statistics and will likely continue to do so. We continuously work with our customers to create payment arrangements to prevent service disruption. We also offer energy efficiency programs and education to help lower customer bills that may be a result of higher-than-average consumption. We will continue to closely monitor these statistics and our collection efforts.
The slower-than-expected improvement in the economy continues to take a toll on some of our residential and business customers. Through grants, we provided approximately $45 million in federal and private energy assistance in 2013, almost 32 percent less than in 2012. Funding in 2013 of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, was lower because funding levels vary from year to year based on congressional action. The LIHEAP program helps low-income families pay their heating and electric bills through cash grants that are paid directly to the utility company.
We also provide other types of aid to assist customers. Our self-serve agency website provides a convenient way for social services agencies to make their pledges via the Internet. In 2013, more than 11,000 pledges were recorded, totaling $2 million. In addition, AEP has Neighbor to Neighbor programs in the majority of its states that help customers who are behind on their bills but whose incomes disqualify them for government assistance. The funds for this program come from customer contributions as well as AEP grants.
AEP Ohio residential customers can also participate in the PIPP Plus Program. The program allows income-eligible customers to make reduced payments on their utility service bills based on a percentage of the household income and heating source. Customers whose household income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines are eligible for PIPP Plus. Regulated electric and gas companies in Ohio offer the program to their customers. Customers whose homes are all electric pay 10 percent of the household’s monthly income year round, while customers who do not heat with electricity pay 6 percent of the household’s monthly income year round, each with a minimum $10 payment. AEP Ohio had 130,576 customers participating in the program at the end of 2013.
Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) helps its customers who are facing financial hardship to heat and cool their homes through their Light A Life Program. Light A Life is a year-round program allowing customers to pay a little extra each month to support customers in need. PSO customers have generously given to the Light A Life program since 1986. In 2013, approximately 2,100 pledges were recorded, totaling $48,413.
Measures of Success
In 2013, AEP placed third in the Top 100 Call Center awards from BenchmarkingPortal. The competition compares the performance of customer contact centers throughout North America by evaluating their key metrics against industry peers. This objective process identifies who is achieving superior results both in financial and qualitative terms, and AEP ranked among the best in the industry.
Once again, AEP ranked as the top-rated utility website in the J.D. Power 2014 Utility Website Evaluation StudySM (UWES). Among the 75 utility companies included in the study, AEP performed particularly well in the Desktop/Laptop computer category. The UWES is based on website evaluations from more than 13,000 electric and/or gas residential customers. Companies are ranked on a scale of 1 to 500; AEP scored a 451.