No one wants to see their utilities cut off for a delinquent bill, especially Chris Blunden.
He’s a Piedmont Natural Gas Field Customer Representative whose job is to disconnect service – but only after doing whatever he can to help customers coping with financial issues.
Blunden, Enoch Day and Alex Appel are a few of the more than 2,500 natural gas employees at Piedmont Natural Gas and Duke Energy, serving over 1.7 million customers across five states: over 1.2 million in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee (Piedmont) and over 500,000 in Ohio and Kentucky.
Utilities across the country are honoring them on March 18 for Natural Gas Utility Workers’ Day, which spotlights their role in serving more than 77 million customers in providing safe, reliable and affordable natural gas service.
“Duke Energy and Piedmont’s employees go above and beyond to serve others and help our communities,” said Senior Vice President Brian Weisker, the Natural Gas Business Unit chief operating officer. “They work long hours in sometimes less-than-ideal conditions to ensure customers have heat on a cold night, and they are active members of the communities where they live and work.”
Blunden recently was assigned to turn off service for 12 customers for nonpayment of bills.
He visits customers after they have been notified the natural gas is due to be shut off. He gives them the opportunity to make arrangements to pay, often providing 24 hours.
“I try to be understanding and personable,” Blunden said. “I want to deal with these folks on a personal level and make them comfortable. No one is ever happy to see the guy at the door with a disconnect notice, but I try to be positive and understanding of each situation.”
Many customers, he said, are grateful that Piedmont gives them the opportunity to correct the issue instead of being disconnected.
“I had an order last week where I was thanked by the customer at least three times that I simply came to the door and allowed her the time to pay,” he said. “Everybody gets down on their luck and needs some help sometimes. We want to help.”
Blunden was able to help nine of the 12 customers he visited make arrangements to avoid disconnections.
“His empathy played an important part in helping these customers,” said Change Management Consultant Jim Riggs, who rode with Blunden that day.
Tom Kraft, supervisor, Gas Field Operations, agrees that Blunden’s skills are vital to Piedmont’s customer service, which ranked No. 1 in the 2022 J.D. Power survey.
“His vast knowledge of our business,” Kraft said, “coupled with his ability to reach the customers on a personal level, has really shown us the importance of our employees.”
Duke Energy natural gas service mechanics Enoch Day and Alex Appel know the importance of giving back to the community.
But when they recently went to a school in Greater Cincinnati as part of a mentoring program, they didn’t know they would be focusing on natural gas safety.
The mentoring program connects businesses and civic groups with students in economically challenged schools. Mentors from these businesses talk with students about jobs and careers. Day and Appel make a point of participating in the program twice a month.
Day and Appel arrived at the school and noticed a natural gas smell. Day, who has worked for Duke Energy for 16 years, retrieved his CGI (combustible gas indicator) to check for leaks and started investigating. The school’s maintenance person said they just turned on appliances in the kitchen but had not opened the vents.
While on the way to the kitchen, Day and Appel went to the boiler room, where they found and repaired some small, non-hazardous leaks, but found they needed a plumber to fix others.
They shut off the valve that led to the kitchen after finding additional non-hazardous leaks, eliminating the need to evacuate. After the plumber arrived, they helped repair the remaining leaks.
“Enoch and Alex exemplify what we expect from employees – placing safety and the customer first,” said Rob McLelland, manager of Gas Customer Fields Operations. “These gentleman are routinely recognized for putting the customer first and on this day, they lived that out in their actions.”
For Appel, a four-year Duke Energy veteran, detecting and making repairs are just a normal part of his job, but all with a greater purpose.
“Our top two priorities,” Appel said, “are to preserve life and property.”
“We feel like we were in the right place at the right time that day,” said Day. “And the lesson learned is – if you smell something, say something."
Piedmont Natural Gas recently earned the No.1 spot in customer satisfaction with residential natural gas service in the South among large utilities in J.D. Power’s 2022 Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.
“This level of devotion to quality customer service is just one reason why Piedmont achieved its No. 1 ranking with J.D. Power,” said Senior Vice President Brian Weisker. “Our workers are committed to our natural gas customers. For many of these men and women, it’s more than just a job; it’s a way of life.”
Customers struggling to pay their utility bills can get help from Duke Energy’s Share the Light Fund and Piedmont’s Share the Warmth program.