News10NBC Investigates: RG&E President: ‘We’re in the storm’ of customer service issues

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — After months of billing and customer service issues, the New York State Department of Public Service has confirmed to News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke that it has launched a new investigation into RG&E. 

During an exclusive interview in Albany, NYSDPS Consumer Advocate Richard Berkley told News10NBC that his office has received three times the number of complaints about RG&E this year compared to last. The agency has a new investigation underway into the utility’s billing and customer service issues in addition to the rate case it’s currently deciding on. 

In response, President of RG&E Trish Nilsen agreed to an interview with News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke. 

More about billing issues with RG&E:

Jennifer Lewke – What can you tell me about that investigation and are you cooperating? 

Trish Nilsen – We always cooperate with the Public Service Commission. Certainly, we recognize at RG&E that there have been challenges. We have re-instituted a satisfaction steering committee. We have launched an action plan focused on alleviating the billing issues that we know RG&E customers are facing. We’ve put steps in place to get us through our new billing system. That’s one step in the process. But when we put a new system into place, there’s a learning curve that happens for your people, updates to our website are in place and again there are some installation curves that we’re going through with that. 

Jennifer Lewke – I continue to still get 10-15 calls or emails a day from customers who simply cannot get through to a live person at RG&E, or if they can it’s only after waiting hours.

Trish Nilsen – It is a challenge to get through to a call center, especially when you have the types of calls that we’ve been getting, which are often more complex billing questions or service issues. That [isn’t] a quick yes-no three-minute call. It was difficult to retain the staffing that we needed to be successful during the pandemic, and Jennifer, I have to thank you for sending customers our way. I know that we’ve partnered with you and have received both through our communications teams and through our vice president of customer service direct referrals if a customer does come to you. We appreciate that. We’re working very hard to bring back our staffing to where it needs to be. In the meantime, our folks are working a number of hours of overtime. They’re putting in the midnight hours to try and answer all customer questions. 

Jennifer Lewke – Are you close to being through that storm? 

Trish Nilsen – Jennifer, we are in the storm. I will say it has been a challenge. It will continue to be a challenge as we bring those new people in and we train them. It’s going to take time for us to get through. We’ve put steps in place to get us through our new billing system. That’s one step in the process, but when we put a new system into place though, there’s a learning curve that happens for your people. Updates to our website are in place and again there are some installation curves that we’re going through with that.

Jennifer Lewke – I spoke with regulators at the NYS Public Service. They told me that while they know you’re having staffing issues, that’s not an excuse. 

Trish Nilsen – From our perspective, in a rate case we do make certain service quality metrics. We do agree [with] them they are challenging and they’re part of a negotiation and they certainly can be stretched goals in some cases. In retrospect, maybe we should have pushed harder for less aggressive goals, but from our standpoint, it’s important for us to serve our customers, so we prefer to give ourselves tough goals and hold ourselves accountable if we don’t make them.

Jennifer Lewke – At the same time all of this is happening, you’re asking for a rate hike. I think it is very tough for people to swallow the fact that you’re asking for such a substantial increase when they have struggled so deeply trying to get their bills figured out or trying to even get through to someone at RG&E. Have you considered at all pulling back on that request or at least asking for less?

Trish Nilsen – We’re entering into settlement negotiations with the parties in the rate case with the New York State Public Service Commission staff. We are really looking to make repairs to what we’ve agreed to in prior rate settlements. We had a prior rate settlement during COVID and we stepped back and asked for less because we understood that it was a dire circumstance across New York State and a dire circumstance for our customers. At the same time because we’ve done so, we have sacrificed our ability to meet our reliability metrics and some of our customer service metrics. 

Jennifer Lewke – What do you say to those customers who have lost faith in you? How do they know that the bill you are sending them is accurate?

Trish Nilsen – Customers who have concerns about their bills can work with us and we have an appeals process. If necessary we’ll make a site visit. We’ll do a check read. We’ll do what we need to do to build that confidence back for our customers.