Gas customers tired of being on hold

Volume of calls to customer service hotline on the rise, agitating many callers

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— As gas prices have climbed to unprecedented levels this winter, about 10,000 people have been calling the customer service hotline at Greeley Gas every day, said Greeley Gas Public Affairs Manager Karen Wilkes. And many of those people, as Wilkes admitted, have been getting either a busy signal or an earful of drawn-out elevator music.

Although the Greeley Gas hotline repeatedly claims "your call is important to us" when customers first connect, many customers have complained to the city and the company that the extended delays they have experienced lately have proven otherwise.

Propane prices have also escalated almost as drastically as natural gas. Because natural gas is used in the production of propane, the prices of the two are linked. About 8.1 million households use propane gas to heat their homes, according to the National Propane Gas Association. Ferrellgas, which many Steamboat homes and businesses rely on for their propane, has had to raise its rates after seeing its costs go up more than twofold. Most of that cost gets passed on to the consumers, said Scott Brockelmeyer, a Ferrellgas spokesman. Brockelmeyer said unusually cold weather has also caused heating bills to rise this winter. Brockelmeyer said the company has been getting more calls since it raised its rates but has not had to hire new people to field the calls.

A call to the hotline Monday morning prompted a delay of 25 minutes. The customer service representative expressed apologies at the length of the wait.

Deputy City Manager Wendy Dubord expressed her discontent with customer service at the company in a letter she wrote in November to Wilkes. Dubord wrote that she has fielded numerous comments from residents upset they cannot gain information about the rate increases.

Greeley Gas has explained the increase in heating bills does not translate into an increase in profits. The rising cost of natural gas is simply passed on to the consumer, Wilkes said. The city's gas bills went up by at least 25 percent at the end of 2000, said City Finance Director Don Taylor, while some consumers are paying as much as three times the rates they paid last year. And when consumers received their bills, they were quick to get on the phone to question them. Unfortunately, the long waits seemed not to cool them down instead driving them to go to the city for help.

"People would try to call Greeley Gas and would just give up," Dubord said. "So then they'd call me."

The city itself has also had difficulty getting answers about its bills, having to express its concerns to local Greeley Gas employees whom it must "track down," Dubord said. Greeley Gas used to maintain a local office in Steamboat Springs that could handle customer service inquiries but has since closed that office. The toll-free hotline residents now call connects them with operators located in Texas.

Tonight, Wilkes and Gary Schlessman, the president of Greeley Gas, will address City Council about the problem with their customer service hotline and the remedies that are already under way.

The volume of calls to Greeley Gas has risen three to four times its normal rate, Schlessman said.

Wilkes wrote the company has already hired many new people to answer phones and hopes to triple its customer service staff by the end of the month.

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