The days of customers receiving inaccurate bills or having a hard time getting a service rep on the phone are largely over, Central Maine Power has told state utility regulators in an effort  to remove an ongoing, record financial penalty that has been depressing its earnings.

CMP has met or exceeded state-ordered customer service quality benchmarks and wants the Maine Public Utilities Commission to remove an ongoing penalty that has resulted in the utility losing almost $10 million in revenue over the past 18 months, according to information the company laid out in documents filed Monday.

CMP also has made “significant organizational improvements and cultural changes to ensure consistent, enduring and high-quality customer service,” the company told regulators.

The PUC said Tuesday that it has started to review the filing.

“The commission will process CMP’s request and determine if and/or when the adjustment may be removed and if and/or when CMP may recover the reduction amount in customer rates,” said Susan Faloon, the agency’s spokeswoman.

Accurate bills and timely help are a notable step forward for Maine’s largest utility, which is eager to improve its image and standing with customers as it faces challenges on multiple fronts.

A November referendum vote that could hamstring a controversial power line project in western Maine and an ongoing effort to force a buyout of CMP and Versant Power to create a consumer-owned utility have gained at least some of their momentum from unhappy customers. And while critics cite national surveys that indicate bottom-of-the-barrel customer satisfaction, CMP said its own internal polling now registers an 88.5 percent approval rate on how transactions are being handled, up from 77 percent in February 2018.

The PUC commissioners had voted in January 2020 to penalize CMP by cutting its earnings by nearly $10 million over 18 months. The penalty was in response to the company’s chronic customer service failings and mismanagement of a recently overhauled software billing system.

The $9.9 million earnings reduction was the largest single financial penalty ordered for a utility and its shareholders by the PUC in recent history, the agency said at the time. It also was the largest ever imposed by the PUC on an electric utility to penalize poor management.

CMP’s earnings have been reduced by lowering customers’ rates. Over the past 18 months, CMP’s allowed return on equity, a measure of its profitability, has been reduced from 9.25 percent to 8.25 percent, resulting in a $6.6 million annual revenue reduction. The total reduction over the past 18 months added up to roughly $9.9 million.

The company also is asking the PUC for an “accounting order,” which means customer rates wouldn’t rise right away, but would be deferred to a future rate adjustment case. The PUC was unable to immediately calculate the potential rate impact on residential customers.

In Monday’s filing, CMP presented evidence to show it has turned around its service quality since 2020, hitting or topping service quality indices established by the PUC. Those benchmarks include:

• Answering more than 87 percent of customer calls within 30 seconds, exceeding the PUC target of 80 percent.

• Providing timely, accurate bills more than 99 percent of the time since March 2020.

• Posting a cumulative bill error rate of 0.3 percent, better than the PUC goal of 0.4 percent.

• Hitting a call abandonment rate of only 3.4 percent since March 2020, which is a measure of people who hang up after receiving a busy signal. The PUC target was 7 percent.

The company also is applying a $25 credit to any customer whose bill is not delivered on time.

“The MPUC set the bar very high with these service quality standards – the highest ever established for CMP – and it took hard work and significant organizational changes to meet and even exceed them,” said Linda Ball, CMP’s vice president of customer service.

Ball’s position was created in 2019 specifically to find solutions to customer service complaints.

Ball said the company now has the right people and tools in place to provide and maintain high-quality customer service. To get there, the company took steps that include more staffing at its call center and extending hours to 6 p.m. on weekdays. It also improved training so reps could better answer questions.

The company created a nine-person team to help resolve defects and manage changes in the trouble-plagued SmartCare billing system. That system and its faulty roll out were at the root of problems during the transition in 2017.

The Office of Public Advocate, the state agency representing utility customers, said it is seeing some evidence of CMP’s stated progress.

“The OPA has seen a significant drop in the number of complaints relating to CMP since the service penalties were imposed,” said Drew Landry, the state’s acting public advocate. “With respect to those high usage complaints that we have fielded, CMP has appeared willing to work with the customers to determine the underlying causes of their issues.”

But regarding the PUC penalty, Landry noted that service indices are based on large amounts of data and said it will take time to dig into it.

“We expect that the PUC will establish a process that will allow the public advocate, the PUC staff and other interested parties to analyze the accuracy of the claims in CMP’s filing, and we will participate actively in that review,” Landry said.

Service quality indices, as the benchmarks are known by regulators, are an increasingly popular way to measure customer satisfaction. The PUC is considering their role in a separate case dealing with overall utility performance.


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