Central Maine Power has launched a TV ad campaign in an attempt to burnish a reputation tarnished by customer outrage over high bills, a class-action lawsuit and state investigation of its billing and metering practices.
In 30- and 60-second spots that started airing on Maine stations Monday, Doug Herling, president and CEO of CMP, apologizes to customers for problems the company has been dealing with for most of this year.
“We’ve been powering Maine homes and businesses for 120 years,” Herling says, addressing the camera directly. “This past winter we implemented a new customer care system. When you raised issues and concerns, we didn’t respond as well as we should have and we are very sorry about that.”
The ads feature linemen working on power lines, customer service workers, engineers and a meter reader interacting with customers.
Trouble for CMP started last October, after the company was criticized heavily for its response to a damaging windstorm that knocked out power to more than 350,000 customers, in some cases for more than a week.
Then this winter, customers began complaining about power bills that were double or triple what they expected. In total, 97,000 customers’ bills increased 50 percent or more this winter, according to the power company.
That led to a state investigation and a group seeking class-action status in a lawsuit filed last month seeking damages. The power company has blamed unusually high electric bills on an extreme cold snap in December and January and an increase in the cost of electricity.
In the ad, Herling says CMP has expanded its customer service team and is working hard to address each and every concern raised.
“We will work hard to earn your trust,” Herling said.
Some CMP customers burdened by excessive power bills say winning them back will take a lot more than a few TV ads.
“I’m pretty sure everybody feels the same way I do,” said Amber Bouchard of Baldwin. “We are not just going to trust that company until something significantly changes and we actually see a difference.”
Bouchard is one of more than 200 customers who have complained about high rates to the Maine Public Utilities Commission as part of its investigation of CMP’s billing and metering. Her electric bill has been between $50 and $100 more a month than usual, and is inconsistent with her kilowatt hour use, even though the only thing she changed was to switch to LED light bulbs.
“Somebody needs to be held accountable and take fault and admit they were wrong,” Bouchard said.
Heather McKenna, from Milton, an unincorporated township in Oxford County, echoed Bouchard. Her electric bill ballooned to $1,200 a month for a three-bedroom mobile home, McKenna said.
“When I called, they told me that my light bill was equal to a small business,” she said. The high bills are taking a toll on family finances that won’t be fixed by a public relations blitz, she said.
“No, they are going to have to do a lot more than an ad campaign to get my trust back.”
The ads were paid for by CMP shareholders, not ratepayers and will run for a couple of weeks, spokeswoman Gail Rice said in an interview Monday. She did not answer questions about what time slots and how frequently the ads would run or how much the ad campaign cost.
CMP wants to address customer concerns about meters, billing and customer communications through the ads, Rice said.
“Doug just wanted to talk to customers directly, say ‘We know you are concerned, anything that is found that caused customer bills to be incorrect, we will make that right.’” The Public Utilities Commission, which has regulatory oversight of CMP, is investigating complaints of overbilling and CMP’s response to customers. Additionally, the state has hired a third-party firm to conduct a forensic audit of the company to examine the same issues.
CMP President Doug Herling