PSC to order utilities to listen to customers

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 8, 2008

Philosophers in Ancient Greece spent many hours describing how we are born with an urge to seek meaning in our lives.

They’d find much evidence for that proposition in today’s Mississippi Public Service Commission.

In a little-publicized effort, the three men elected to serve as the PSC are studying proposals they demanded from utility companies.

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While some PSC tasks are highly complex — its mission is to assure that all non-municipal utilities in Mississippi are profitable without customers being overcharged — this one is simple: They want companies to answer their phones.

Indeed, and someone may correct me if there are others, Mississippi is on the way to becoming the only state that requires that the power people and the water people and the gas people and even the phone people have a living, breathing human being to say hello and listen when customers call to report losses of service and such.

It has been a long time since Mississippi had any activists on the PSC, but we apparently do now. Brandon Presley, 30, from Nettleton, represents the Northern District. Lynn Posey 53, of Union Church, represents the Central District. And Leonard Bentz, 35, of Woolmarket, represents the Southern District, at least until the end of this month.

And clearly, as they were campaigning in 2007 (and explaining more than once what PSC members do) they were told that the most frustrating part of dealing with Entergy or AT&T or Mississippi Power was the company’s automated phone menus.

“Thank you for calling …. if you have a question about your bill, press 1 …. for new service, press 2 …. to report a loss of service, press 3. … If you are not calling from a touch-tone phone, please go buy one and call us back when you get it installed ….”

Of course, after looking up Entergy’s number and keying it in the dark and then navigating to the right extension, the disembodied-but-friendly voice asks you, of all things, to key in your 37-digit account number. Make a mistake and you get to start over.

I have to admit none of this bothers me.  When my power goes out, I never even call. That’s because I know the utilities, except in isolated cases, know instantly in their operations centers when part of a service grid is lost. I also know that when there’s a widespread emergency they have a priority list based on getting critical services restored first and then working in ways to get the most customers back the fastest. They’ll get to me when they get to me, and they always have.

But I also know most folks believe calling does make a difference. And most folks are not satisfied with a computer-generated message as to when they might expect service. They want a living, breathing human being to tell them with specificity when they can expect service so they can argue or plead for mercy. They want a little Q&A time.

How do I know this? Because many of those people who can’t reach a human at a utility company will hang up and call the newspaper. We have an after-hours answering machine, but most of the time callers get one of us. I’ve never been able to give anyone more information than they could get from their dog or cat, but I believe callers feel better after sharing their thoughts.

A lot of what the PSC does is “automated” these days. It’s not the headline-making authority it once was.

But the members, having heard from the public, want to matter. They want to have relevance.

So, in coming weeks, look for the PSC to order the big utilities to hire living, breathing people to take calls — even if they’re all the way at the end of an automated menu of options.

A big step backward will be a big step forward.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail