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Retail Suppliers Raise Concern With Regulator's Proposed "Interactive Discussion" TPV Process

Suppliers File Updated Proposals On Marketing Scripts, Disclosure Statements

October 1, 2019

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Copyright 2010-19
Reporting by Paul Ring •

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In recently filed updated proposed marketing scripts and other materials in the Massachusetts DPU's retail electric marketing investigation, a group of retail suppliers reiterated concerns with a new "interactive discussion" process for third party verifications that has been proposed at a high level by regulators

The "interactive discussion" TPV is meant to accomplish the DPU's stated intent, made when the proceeding was opened in January 2019, that the DPU, "seeks to expand the role of TPV to include confirmation that competitive suppliers have complied with the marketing standards of conduct discussed [in the order] – absent such confirmation, a competitive supplier would not be permitted to enroll the customer."

Implementing such a revised interactive discussion TPV process has been designated a "Tier II" issue in the proceeding, for later discussion

However, the new interactive discussion TPV process has been implicated in Tier I (near-term) discussions as stakeholders address changes to marketing scripts and, specifically, scripts which prepare the customer for the TPV process

A working group of suppliers said that the interactive TPV proposal, which has, "discussed only at a high level to date and deferred as a Tier II issue," would, "fundamentally change TPVs from the current structure in which the Company asks questioners a series of questions that must be answered 'yes' or the TPV call will immediately fail, to an interactive discussion in which the agent will ask the customer to give oral answers to questions such as what is the agreed-upon fixed price, what are the termination fee provisions, what are the automatic renewal provisions, etc."

An alternative proposal on marketing scripts from DPU Staff would include, as a final requirement before initiating the TPV, five points that the supplier would need to reiterate with the customer to prepare the customer for answering interactive questions during the TPV -- these five points ("five boxes") would then be discussed on the TPV

In response, the suppliers said, "suppliers have significant concerns with the Department’s proposal for an interactive TPV process."

"[U]unless and until such alternative TPV regime is adopted following procedural measures that will be part of the Department’s Tier II issues in this docket, suppliers strongly suggest that it would be premature and unwarranted to require such five additional boxes to be included in the required closing scripts. Additionally, even in the event that the Department moves forward with such new alternative TPV approach at some future point in this docket, suppliers do not see a need to include these five specific additional boxes in the required minimum script. At that point, suppliers would need to devote time in a sales call to prepare the customers to 'pass' the mandatory interactive question test and would no doubt be rehearsing the questions with the customers using the same or similar questions as included in the Department’s alternative proposal without the need for the text to be expressly required in the closing script," the suppliers said

Specifically, the alternative Staff script would provide, immediately before initiating a TPV, a call or door to door agent shall state the following to the customer:

• In a moment, you will be transferred to [Supplier Name's] verification service provider. Before I do so, I would like to review with you the product information that we have discussed.

• The price you will pay will be fixed at xx cents per kilowatt-hour for a term of xx months.

• Should you cancel the agreement prior to the end date, you will be charged a fee of $ xx [or] $ xx per month remaining on the agreement.

• This agreement will automatically renew at the end of the term unless you inform us otherwise. We will contact you no later than 30 days before that time to discuss your supply options with you.

• If renewable product: The product you have purchased exceeds the state's minimum requirements for renewable energy

"The suppliers do not support the five boxes proposed in the Department’s alternative proposal that introduce and then re-specify each of the price, termination fee, automatic renewal and renewable product provisions which were discussed during the sales call. Obtaining customer confirmation of each of these elements is a task that is addressed during the TPV call that will immediately follow, and the proposed language will be unnecessarily duplicative of each of these elements," the suppliers said

Suppliers also raised concerns with other provisions of Staff's alternative scripts

"Suppliers are concerned that several elements in the Department’s alternative scripts include excessive and unnecessary text and will overburden marketing discussions and should not be included in a required initial script. By definition, a telemarketing call is unsolicited and the prospect is likely willing to hear no more than minimum mandatory disclosure text before hearing the sales pitches, or they will abandon the call prematurely," the suppliers said

"The Department’s alternative scripts include additional text proposing to mandate suppliers to educate consumers about competitive market issues but the proposed additions include text that is excessive in length and not complete or balanced (i.e., they require suppliers to say that municipal aggregations compete with supplier offerings but fail to point out that utility basic service offerings compete with supplier offerings). We propose not to adopt the mandatory educational portions of the script on grounds of lack of necessity, excessive length and likely confusion to customers," the suppliers said

Suppliers noted that such extensive language would interfere with a supplier's obligation to state the purpose of the call within 1 minute, as required under state law.

"[S]uppliers are subject to G.L. c. 159C, § 5A requirements relative to telemarketing. (Such statute does not apply to D2D marketing.) We propose to adjust the script to require that a vendor agent identify the names of his or her vendor and the electric supplier at the start of the call, as required by c. 159C, § 5A. Furthermore, the requirement that a description of goods and services offered must be completed in the first minute of the call strengthens the above argument to excise from the required opening text the suggested educational information on distribution companies and municipal aggregations, questions relative to customer authorization, and marketing introductory text," the suppliers said

The Staff alternative script proposal would include the following language, which suppliers oppose in the proposed form (as noted below, suppliers have excised much of the text but retained/revised some in the supplier revised proposal)

Department Staff Alternate Proposal

Telemarketing Script Intro

• Hello, my name is [John]. I am [sic] work on behalf of [Supplier Name], a licensed electricity supplier in Massachusetts.

• I am calling you today to inform you of the electric supply products that [Supplier Name] offers, and to explain how our products may provide value to you.

• [Supplier Name] is not affiliated with your electric utility. Instead, [Supplier Name] and the electric utility provide different services – [Supplier Name] purchases the electricity that our customers use, and the utility delivers the electricity to their homes.

• [Additional disclaimer when marketing to a customer in a Municipal Aggregation community]:

• [Supplier Name] also is not affiliated with the municipal aggregation program that [Municipality Name] operates. Indeed, [Supplier Name] competes with [Program Name] to provide you with your electric supply.

• Are you the customer of record on your electric utility account/Does your name appear on your monthly electric bill?

• Would you like to learn more about our products and the value that they can provide to you?

The revised supplier workgroup proposed script is as follows:

Supplier Workgroup Revised Proposal

Telemarketing Script Intro

• Hello, my name is [John]. I work for [X Vendor] and I am calling to sell electricity [and, if applicable, related products] on behalf of [Supplier Name], a licensed electricity supplier in Massachusetts.

• [Supplier Name] is not affiliated with your electric utility or any city or town energy programs.

• [Product description and sales pitch begins].

Suppliers also submitted a revised standard form contract summary. The summary includes standard fields. Notable is that suppliers said that, "Suppliers contend that the contract summary should be applicable to all product types, including fixed price offers, but also, variable, index or otherwise. Suppliers have various types of pricing structures and all residential customers should receive a similar template of summarized contract information. To that end, suppliers contend that while the format and structure should be consistent among suppliers, the various types of products may not fit squarely into mandatory disclosure language. Therefore, Suppliers support allowing for some flexibility with respect to the descriptions of their products."

Docket 19-07

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