Reliantly Unhelpful

The abyss of customer service gets deeper

In case you haven't noticed -- and if you haven't, then congratulations on your apparently very comfortable financial circumstances -- you are paying a helluva lot more for electricity than you used to.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Reliant Energy are here to help. Unfortunately, that help comes with all the competence and enthusiasm that makes the Reliant Energy customer service department the envy of customer service departments everywhere (that are trying to be aggressively bad -- Best Buy, we're looking at you!).

Among the many who have found this out is Mike Sherman, a 26-year-old UH student. Being as financially sound as most full-time 26-year-old students -- in other words, constantly looking not just for ramen noodles but for specials on ramen noodles -- his heart lifted when he heard that Reliant was helping out with high electricity bills.

Goaded along by the state's Public Utility Commission, Reliant is offering a "chill now, pay later" plan that defers some bills until the cooler months. It's available to anyone making up to 125 percent of the poverty level.

Since Sherman pulls in about $2,400 a year at a restaurant gig, he figured it'd be easy enough to sign up for the program.

He obviously hadn't dealt too closely before with Reliant Energy customer service.

Masters -- absolute, stone-cold masters -- of the strategy of putting callers on hold, transferring them to someone else who has to hear the story from the beginning before putting the caller on hold and transferring them (repeat as necessary), Reliant dicked with Sherman for, by his count, at least four hours.

And then informed him he made too much money to qualify for the program.

Sherman receives a $4,000 Pell Grant and $10,500 in student loans. To Reliant, those loans are income; to Sherman, they're debt.

"Financial aid is considered income until the person is responsible for paying it, then it becomes a debt," says Reliant spokeswoman Patricia Hammond.

Why?

"I really don't know," she says.

Sherman has repeated his hold-and-repeat performance a handful of times trying to get an answer, but since his "income" is more than $12,250, he's out of luck.

After we spoke with Hammond, she got back to us to say that she'd made a mistake, that requests are considered "on a case-by-case basis" and that Sherman should set up an appointment to discuss his situation.

We're sure this will all be resolved. By December.

Partners of a Sort

When last we left the Reverend I.V. Hilliard and his wife, Bridget, they were celebrating her 50th birthday at the Hyatt Regency, where tickets were $100 and suggested gifts included Gucci handbags and Neiman-Marcus gift certificates (see Hair Balls, February 9).

Now the empire-building preacher is announcing the Hilliard Vocational Bible Institute, which will, according to the church, be "an answer to a Macedonian-type call from young men and women in the body of Christ who desire a spirit-filled Bible-emphasis training in a vocational educational setting."

The school is designed for the "future pastor, church administrator, evangelist, assistant pastor, youth leader...and worship leader," the announcement from Hilliard's New Light church says. "Our purpose is to provide an atmosphere for students to pursue their divine destiny, to hear from God and come to intimately know Him."

To do all this, the church said it had established a partnership with Houston Community College. Which you wouldn't normally think would be getting involved with the churchin' business.

Not to worry. "The word 'partnership' is kind of not accurate," says HCC spokeswoman Carole Keeney Harrington. "It's an agreement we have with them to teach classes on their campus, and that's all it really amounts to."

HCC will teach strictly vocational adult-ed courses such as computer technology, she says. It's a common arrangement used whenever a company or church has people willing to sign up for classes and space that can be used for teaching.

So no ministry courses? "Oh, no," she says. "These are all typical adult-ed courses we are doing."

Which means, we guess, that it won't be HCC providing the professors for "How to Get Your Flock to Donate Gucci Bags 101."

Partners of a Sort, Part 2

Dave, the last-name-hating manager of the Eros 1207 chain of adult stores, has finally been welcomed with open arms in Brazoria County.

His invitations to the county's public officials, encouraging them to attend the grand opening of his lube-and-vibrator shoppe, may not have gone over so well (see Hair Balls, August 10). But the Brazoria Chamber of Commerce has officially voted to accept him as a member.

"I'm not surprised," Dave says, "because the support from the community has been great." A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for September 15.

So, how do the folks at the Brazoria County chamber feel about their newest colleague? It's difficult to say.

Chamber president Sandra Shaw wouldn't return numerous phone calls seeking to confirm that Eros 1207 had been voted in. As our deadline approached, we tried one more time:

"She's really the one you would have to speak to, but she's not in at the moment," we were told.

So there's no one else in the entire chamber of commerce who can talk about one of your members?

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