Times Columnist

Three big electric utilities serve Floridians from Miami to Tampa Bay to Orlando and Tallahassee. Similar service territories. Yet their customer satisfaction ratings could not be further apart.

What gives?

Duke Energy Florida suffers the worst residential customer satisfaction of any big electric utility in the southeastern United States.

Tampa Electric is barely better.

Together, the two utilities that provide the bulk of electric power to the greater Tampa Bay area sit at the bottom of the barrel in the Southeast in J.D. Power's annual survey of residential customer satisfaction.

Aren't we lucky?

But drive south over the Skyway bridge into Manatee County. Welcome to the service territory of Florida Power & Light, where customer satisfaction ranks tops in Florida and second in the entire Southeast among big power providers.

"Those companies at the top excel in customer satisfaction, while those at the bottom have things they need to focus on in order to get better," says John Hazen, a J.D. Power senior director, who tracks the ups and downs of utilities.

Hazen's a polite guy. Let me be blunt.

Granted, few folks love their electric utility. In heat-smacked Florida, monthly utility bills feel too high no matter what.

Yet most FPL customers feel they are getting fair value and good reliability and service in the electricity they purchase. Hence the high satisfaction ratings, J.D. Power experts explain.

On the flip side, the survey shows most Floridians served by Duke Energy and Tampa Electric don't see nearly as good value in their higher-priced electricity and the lesser service that goes with it.

This would not grate my cheese so much if these ratings did not persist year after year. If the two area utilities really want to improve, and they insist they do, then why are they perennially ranked so poorly?

And why isn't the state regulator — the Florida Public Service Commission — holding their feet to the fire to be better? (Let's pause, so readers can laugh at the PSC's infamously weak oversight.)

The J.D. Power survey, now in its 15th year, measures residential customer satisfaction by examining six factors: power quality and reliability; price; billing and payment; corporate citizenship; communications; and customer service.

Hazen says FPL stands out as a superior communicator. Customers may not like everything FPL does, but they are informed enough to know where they stand.

There are other factors at work here. FPL in recent years has offered electricity at a strikingly lower price than Duke Energy Florida or Tampa Electric. But FPL still would rank higher in satisfaction even without its rate advantage.

Aggravating Duke's low marks in Florida is a trail of bad business decisions. The utility broke its Crystal River nuclear plant, then chose to close it prematurely because repair costs proved too high. And the advance fee Duke has charged its Florida customers to pay for the proposed — but now canceled — $25 billion Levy County nuclear plant has no doubt reinforced its low satisfaction ranking.

"When the media is negative, it can lead to lower satisfaction," says J.D. Power senior director Andrew Heath.

To be fair, Duke Energy bought Progress Energy Florida last year and inherited Progress' legacy of low marks for residential customer satisfaction. Perhaps Duke may yet improve its service expectations.

Duke Energy Florida's satisfaction ratings are below those of Duke-owned utilities Duke Energy-Progress and Duke Energy-Carolinas that operate in other states.

When asked for comment on its uninspired J.D. Power showing, Duke Energy Florida stated:

"While we are disappointed in the overall ranking, the 2013 score is the highest J.D. Power score we have received in the last five years and, among business customers, we rank in the 2nd quartile in customer satisfaction. This year's results also show significant improvements in three key areas that customers value most. Power quality and reliability. Pricing. And billing and payments."

At Tampa Electric, which also took its lumps in the survey, the utility points out it, too, has been raising its satisfaction scores in recent years. Just not fast enough to overtake any of its competitors in the survey.

It's upgrading its social media and phone services so customers can contact the utility more easily when there are outages and, in turn, be kept better informed when power will be restored.

Is it enough? Can Duke and Tampa Electric escape the barrel's bottom in these surveys?

Or should the local power monopolies start playing the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction when customers call their help lines and are put on hold?

Robert Trigaux can be reached