By Sarah Pridgeon
After two full weeks without telephone service in the wake of October’s storm, CenturyLink agreed to refund its Beulah customers for the majority of the outage. But when the company accidentally issued a debit instead of a credit, some began to question whether things really have improved since its 2008 Public Service Commission hearings.
“This is very, very embarrassing and very hard on our customers… I personally think we’ve concluded it is human error,” said Kristen Lee, Director of Regular and Legislative Affairs, at a PSC hearing.
“Certainly this isn’t something we would ever have wanted to happen and so I apologize on behalf of the company.”
A blanket adjustment was issued to all Beulah customers in the first part of November, said Customer Advocacy Manager Greg Norman. But when he checked the system after the credits were issued, the cost had been applied as a debit instead of a credit.
Norman alerted the persons responsible and initiated the process of both reissuing the credit and refunding the debit. The customer advocacy group called customers to alert them of the mistake and explain that the credit would appear on their December bill.
“We either spoke to them or left a message. There might have been a few we haven’t been able to reach and we’re still trying to call on those,” he said.
“We believe that the issue has been resolved at this time.”
When asked if follow-up calls would be made to those customers who couldn’t be reached, Norman explained that leaving a message had been considered sufficient. He also noted that a second credit will be applied to the next bill sent out because the first did not include taxes.
Any customer who paid the bill in full, including the accidental debit, will see a credit for this amount on their account.
“That’ll just roll over to the December bill,” Norman said. “There will be no loss of money to our customers.”
Members of the commission questioned whether the customer advocacy group had left a contact number for customers in their messages. Norman responded that a contact number is included on every bill and the customer service office has been alerted of the situation.
“I would have to say [that with] most of the customers, we didn’t get too much or any negative feedback. They were grateful that we called and were taking care of the problem for them,” he said, adding that the system is being fixed to ensure the mistake is never repeated.
“We were concentrating on getting the credits on the bill, so now we’ll work on fixing the problem so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Not every attendee at the meeting was content with CenturyLink’s explanations. The commission commented that similar issues appear to exist today as when the company’s predecessor, Qwest, ran the service, particularly with its communications.
John Schoffstall, President of the Ranch A Association, complained that not every customer had been alerted, for example.
“My secretary tells me she has had no contact with the people from CenturyLink,” he said. “She has tried to call them and had no response, so I don’t think their response today is satisfactory.”
Schoffstall later pointed out that the same problems were brought up at the 2008 hearing and customers have still not had the satisfaction of the problem being solved. He suggested that something needs to be done to make CenturyLink aware of this.
“I’d suggest a million dollar fine,” he said, which the commission agreed to take under advisement.
County Attorney Joe Baron questioned why credit was only given for 12 days when customers were without phone service for 14, from October 4 to 18.
“The snowstorm hit on October 4 and, due to a power outage, our systems were down until October 7,” explained Lee.
The company attempted to restore the service on October 8, when it was able to access the broken generator. It did not issue credit for those two days.
“Specifically, in our tariffs it says that outages caused by weather are not compensated,” Lee explained.
“The issue primarily is that there were two days where it was due to a power outage, not our equipment.”
Nels Smith, however, argued that the cause of the outage should not be a factor in the amount credited to customers.
“The cause is irrelevant to the fact that they didn’t deliver the service that they are obligated to serve,” he said.
“If they’ve slipped a tariff in there that somehow allows them to not give credit when they fail to deliver service, I suggest that they be ordered to give credit for the amount of time of the actual outage, along with all associated fees and taxes, and that that tariff and any others that might work such an injustice on the customers be called up for review.”
The commission directed Chris Petrie, Secretary and Chief Counsel, to investigate the tariff in question. Baron meanwhile spoke of Beulah customers who had spent considerable time attempting to contact the company to question the mistake, calling this a “common theme” across the region.
He suggested that CenturyLink set up a point of contact for customers to call about an outage.
“We have one general repair number that a lot of calls go to and I’m not sure why people are having so much trouble getting through but obviously, according to Mr. Baron, they are,” responded Norman.
A similar story was heard during recent investigations into CenturyLink’s quality and reliability of service in Lusk. Customer reports indicated that outages were common and lengthy and repair seldom happened promptly, while there was a broad dissatisfaction with the company’s system for reporting problems.
The commission questioned why this is a consistent theme and agreed that Norman be appointed as a contact person at least until the issue is resolved. His direct number for customers with questions is 307-633-2708.