W. Joseph Campbell

Pepco the rude

In Media myths, Washington Post on February 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

It’s no media myth: Pepco personnel can be downright rude to their customers.

Pepco is the bungling utility company that sells electricity to 778,000 households in and near Washington, D.C.

Pepco’s inability to keep the lights on during winter and summer storms, and its agonizing slowness in restoring power when the lights do go out, has stirred intense and richly deserved criticism from customers and politicians.

The criticism swelled anew in the aftermath of a snowstorm a week ago that brought some 8 inches of heavy snow to the Washington area and knocked out power to more than 200,000 Pepco customers. (The Washington Post noted that the utility “issued a series of promises about when service would be restored, and it did not keep them.”)

My place in suburban Maryland was without power for 44 hours, forcing a retreat to a local hotel.

Before dawn today, power went off again in the neighborhood. A light rain was falling, but that wasn’t enough to knock out the lights.

At the end of the otherwise darkened street I could see the flashing yellow lights of a Pepco repair truck. So I walked down to inquire about what was a puzzling outage.

“Good morning,” I said as I stepped across a snowbank and approached a helmeted Pepco worker standing near the truck.

“What was that?” the Pepco guy asked.

“I said, ‘Good morning.'”

“Good morning.”

“What are we looking at?” I asked Pepco guy. “Is this likely to be a brief outage or something more extended?”

“What do you mean, ‘more extended’?” Pepco guy asked.

“We were without power for 44 hours last week. That’s extended.”

Pepco guy replied, “I haven’t been home since Wednesday,” when the  snowstorm hit.

There was an abrupt and dismissive edge to his comment. He wasn’t seeking sympathy. He was suggesting my questions were inappropriate. Out of line. Trivial.

And I resented it.

“Well, you’re paid to do this work,” I said. “We pay Pepco to provide electricity, and they don’t do it very well.” Or reliably.

I asked again: “Are we looking at a brief outage, or something more extended?”

“We’ll have it on as soon as we can,” Pepco guy replied.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Within an hour,” he said, finally.

Thanks, I said, and walked back home — annoyed by Pepco guy’s rude responses, and wondering why he was so reluctant to be forthcoming.

If the repairs were minor, as they turned out to be, why not simply say so? Why attempt to shift the focus by injecting a curt and irrelevant comment — “I haven’t been home since Wednesday”? Why not respond directly, and in a professional manner, to what was a reasonable, straightforward, and polite inquiry?

The lights did come back on, in less than an hour. But the annoyance lingered.

Pepco does itself no favors when its personnel treat inquiring customers as if they were little more than nuisances. Customers pay for what they expect will be reliable electric service — and not surprisingly they will seek answers when the lights go out without warning or apparent cause.

Pepco says it has a five-year service-improvement plan that’s to cost $318 million. Five years is a prolonged period, given the extent and frequency of the utility’s service failings.

In any case, it shouldn’t take anywhere near five years for Pepco to commit to improving customer relations, to commit to training its personnel in properly fielding queries from people who pay the bill.

WJC

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