Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Whole Wheat Toast Award: AEP Billing

Back in the salad days (love that term; it implies health) of the Blue Ridge Business Journal, I used to give an occasional Whole Wheat Toast Award for truly awful customer service, impenetrable bureaucracy, mindless red tape and the like.

Of course, the Whole Wheat Toast of the award is from the "Five Easy Pieces" scene when Jack Nicholson orders whole wheat toast and gets a long explanation as to why that is impossible, even though the restaurant has whole wheat bread and a toaster.

Anyhow, we did a customer service April cover story at Valley Business FRONT (our magazine which killed the BRBJ a while back) and I thought it would be a good time to revive the WWTA. The first one goes to American Electric Power billing in Roanoke. Following is an e-mail I got from a complaining customer who suggested I kick off another installment of the award. Here's the story:

The most recent AEP bill I received did not include a payment envelope. At one point I strolled by the office up at Franklin and First to see if they had a drop box I could use. Nada. They had a sign on the door with a number to call about in-person payment locations. Didn't write it down at the time, but looked it up in the book and called. Several times. Different times of day. Waited at least 5 minutes each time, which should be long enough.

The crazy thing is, the message system says "for information about in-person payment locations, press 2" or something like that. But when I pressed 2, it said, every time I tried, "your call cannot be processed; you will be connected with a customer service rep." Why don't they have a system where you can enter a zip code to access the correct list? I mean, this is the 21st century, right?

Today, after waiting on hold for about 20 minutes, I FINALLY got hold of a customer service rep to ask where the in-person payment locations in Roanoke are. Mind you, this was after wading through AEP's website, which, after plugging in my location information, indicated that there are no payment locations within 20 miles of Roanoke! Turns out there are 6, all at various convenience stores (which makes me a little uncomfortable, frankly). I asked why there's no drop box at the main office, and was told it's because they don't process payments there. What, they can't collect the payments once a week and send them to the processing center in Ohio? Would that cause the CEO to miss a boat payment or something?

Or you can pay by phone. For a $2 fee. Plus, you have to call a separate billing company to do this -- can't even do it as part of the call you just made.

At least the website had the correct mailing address for paying by mail in case the payment envelope was "unavailable." (The customer service rep I spoke with, who I have to say was very nice, confirmed this address.)

By the way, the bill that failed to include a payment envelope did include a flier about the new bill design. Yippee.

When you get this kind of service, let me know. We have a shelf full of awards to give.

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