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Entries in monopoly (3)

Wednesday
Jan132010

As expected - no response from Lawrenceville officials

About a month ago, I posted an article about the poor customer service of the City of Lawrenceville in handling payments for its monopoly natural gas service.  I sent the following message along with a link to the article to Mayor Rex Millsaps, City Council members Marie Beiser, Bob Clark, Mike Crow, and P.K. Martin as well as then-incoming council member Katie Hart Smith.
Mayor Millsaps and members of the City Council,

I am writing to you to complain about the poor customer service in paying gas bills to the City of Lawrenceville.  While I do not live in Lawrenceville and am not a voter, I would hope you would still reconsider your business practices and make your bill payment system more customer friendly.  I have posted my serviceexperience with the City to my website, The Gwinnett Buzz.

I am not shocked to say that I did not even get the courtesy of a response from either the mayor or any member of the City Council.  Apparently, my observations in the article were quite prescient:


...the City of Lawrenceville has a monopoly. I have no recourse whatsoever. I cannot vote with my feet and move to another gas provider. Not being a Lawrenceville resident, I do not have the ability to express my displeasure at the ballot box. While I am sending a copy of this article to Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps and the members of the Lawrenceville City Council, what incentive do they have to serve a non-voter who will continue to be a customer regardless of what they do?

The answer to my question is apparently obvious: they have no incentive to serve anyone from whom they cannot receive a vote and from whom they have no risk of losing their revenue stream.  I would suggest that government service monopolies outside jurisdictional boundaries is a matter that our legislative delegation should consider.  However, the lone voice of a single blogger is not going to spur any action.  As such, I would encourage anyone who has to suffer a government monopoly but fails to have any ballot box recourse to speak out about this unfair structure.  Contact your state representatives and state senators.  The silence of Lawrenceville's elected officials speaks volumes as to how much they care about their customers.
Thursday
Dec102009

The City of Lawrenceville's poor customer service

I do not live within the city limits of Lawrenceville. I don’t even have a Lawrenceville mailing address. However, for some inexplicable reason, I am a customer of the City of Lawrenceville’s monopoly natural gas service. Unlike thousands of Gwinnett households, I do not have the option to choose my natural gas service provider. Generally, I have never felt a great urge to shop for providers – after all, is Company A’s gas going to heat my house any better than the City of Lawrenceville’s gas? Unfortunately, where I, as a consumer, lose being a customer of a government service monopoly is in the area of customer service.


Recently, I realized I was a few days late on my gas payment. That is not my complaint; that was my fault and I realized it would cost me a late fee. Upon realizing this, I stopped at the Lawrenceville City Hall on the way to work one morning to pay my bill. I handed my credit card to the lady at the window and was told “We are not setup to accept credit cards.” Excuse me? You process bills that can run into the hundreds of dollars and, in 2009, you are not able to take a credit card in your office? Fortunately, being that the bill was for a summer month, I had enough cash to cover the small total. I asked the lady if there was a way to establish direct payment for my bill. I was told that I could use Wachovia’s Bill Pay service. Because I have not had good experience with third-party bill pay as compared to setting up auto-payment directly with a service provider, I was not interested in this option. I asked if there was a way to have my bill directly charged to my credit card. The lady informed me I could online with a credit card. I knew that – and I try to avoid doing that. Why? Because, though companies across America have web-enabled their business processes due to the cost savings of technology and computing, the City of Lawrenceville opts to charge about three dollars to use a credit card online. The City deems this fee a “convenience charge.” I deem it a rip-off and lousy customer service.


Why does the City of Lawrenceville make things so difficult for its customers? Easy. Aside from the fact that government has a spotty track record for customer-friendly business practices, the City of Lawrenceville has a monopoly. I have no recourse whatsoever. I cannot vote with my feet and move to another gas provider. Not being a Lawrenceville resident, I do not have the ability to express my displeasure at the ballot box. While I am sending a copy of this article to Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps and the members of the Lawrenceville City Council, what incentive do they have to serve a non-voter who will continue to be a customer regardless of what they do?


Bottom-line, I am completely trapped in a government service monopoly that shows little concern for customer service. Consider how things would be different if the City had to compete with the many private service providers. If I could cancel my Lawrenceville gas service and choose another provider that strives to make doing business with them a customer-centric experience, the City would have a major incentive to do likewise. While my concerns may be specific to the City of Lawrenceville, poor customer service is a threat whenever any entity, especially government, holds a monopoly. (One should see a major risk in turning our healthcare over to the federal government – but that is a topic for a different forum.) To be fair, poor customer service is not always the case. Gwinnett County Public Utilities is my only option for water service, but they have very modern and customer-friendly business practices. The City of Lawrenceville could stand to learn a few things about customer service from their fellow government service provider.

Wednesday
Jan282009

Pay more, get less

Did you think that if you consumed less water, your water bill would go down?  As a well known football pundit likes to say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Though water consumption has decreased - or should I say because water consumption has decreased - due to water restriction and conservation efforts, water authorities throughout the metro area including Gwinnett, are raising rates to offset downward pressure on revenue.  Now, before you think this is going to be a full frontal assault on government ineptitude, I have to admit, there is a lot of reality in defense of the increases.
“Many of our expenses are fixed costs,” [Cherokee water official David] Kubala said. “They don’t vary with the volume of sales.”

The number of meters to be read and lines to maintain do not go down as households reduce consumption, he said.

That is basic economics and difficult to dispute.  However, only in a monopoly could a business get away with raising prices at will.  In a competitive marketplace, if a company raises its price, they risk losing business to comeptitors.  There are revenue pressures in many industries today, yet, competition prevents these companies from raising prices.  As a result we are seeing businesses modernizing operations (don't see as much as this as we should in my opinion), laying off employees, reorganizing, and closing locations.  Why?  Because they are seeking to bring their cost structure in line with revenue realities.  

Where is the incentive for a government water authority to take similar actions?  Frankly, there is little incentive.  A water authoriy has no competition and its product is absolutely essential.  Thus, citizens have to trust government officials and utility management to undertake these iniatives on their own accord.  Fortunately, Gwinnett County has a history of undertaking high tech water projects.  However, as is always the case with government entities, we as citizens must be vigilant to ensure that leadership of Gwinnett  County and the water division are acting in the best interest of customers and taxpayers.