Fergus Cullen: You thanked the wrong guy, PSNH!
Produce reliable power, get sued by environmentalists. Restore power after an act of God, face hearings about what took you so long. Thank a customer for shoveling out his meter, get inquiries from a skeptical writer.
"Dear Mrs. Columnist," began the letter addressed to my wife that arrived last week. "As our meter readers have to walk through deep snow and climb over banks daily during the winter months, it is a pleasure to find someone like yourself who has cleared a path to the meters. We would like to express our appreciation for your thoughtfulness in taking the time from your schedule to think of the meter reader. Thank you for your cooperation. Sincerely, PSNH Customer Service."
Isn't that sweet? A February Valentine from our friendly default provider. I'm not just an account number to them! It's a little creepy, but they notice my shoveling habits! Bet they liked all those Christmas lights, too. They think I'm a great guy!
Except I didn't shovel out my meter. My meter's just in a convenient spot, that's all. I do as much to keep the meter clear of snow in February as I do in July. I wish I were a thoughtful guy, worthy of praise, but I'm not. Thank the builder.
And wait a sec. Didn't I pay for this transparent piece of PR fluff? The letter was mailed pre-sort first class, which makes me feel less special. They must send out lots of them.
Might my getting such a letter have anything to do with that other letter in my stack, the one from a competitor asking me to switch to them as my power supplier and get a lower rate than PSNH charges?
What's next, anniversary cards? "Can you believe we've been together four years already? It's electric! We know a handsome guy like you must get other offers from pretty girls who want to hook you up with service. We appreciate your fidelity. You'd never cheat on us, would you?"
Here's an idea, PSNH: Keep the letter and lower my bill by a corresponding amount. That's a thank you I'd appreciate.
Imagine if the Postal Service sent such letters. "We're sorry the town plowed a big snowbank at the end of your driveway after you'd shoveled for two hours and taken off your boots. Your extra effort digging out your mailbox makes us all the more grateful for the opportunity to deliver bills to you, like this one from PSNH." We'd say, no wonder the post office is broke.
Only a monopoly like the postal service, and a quasi-monopoly like PSNH, sees that people are using its product less and concludes it should raise prices. PSNH already lost nearly all its large, commercial customers in the early years of deregulation, and now they are losing tens of thousands of residential customers to a dozen competitors that are taking advantage of current low natural gas prices to undersell PSNH.
And PSNH has already gone broke, of course. Last month marked the 25th anniversary of PSNH's infamous 1988 bankruptcy in the wake of the Seabrook construction debacle. Just as PSNH pushed cost overruns at Seabrook onto ratepayers, they are trying to push the $422 million Bow coal plant scrubber onto consumers as well.
The scrubber was meant to cost $250 million originally. What incentive does PSNH have to keep costs down when it can always go to the Public Utilities Commission for billions in rate recovery from little old ladies paying $40 a month?
A spokesman for PSNH assured me the letter was not sent with public relations in mind, has nothing to do with the aggressive marketing from competitors, and did not come out of PSNH's rate recoverable budget. Meter readers can flag a customer as deserving of such a letter. Thousands are sent each month. The cost, PSNH claims, is minimal compared to overtime and worker's comp caused by snow. People who are recognized for clearing their meter tend to keep their meters clear in the future as well.
So, my meter reader's the nice guy. I'm just a cynical customer.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.