Customer Service

Lead with compassion: How a non-pay disconnect almost killed my father

I recently had the sobering experience of understanding what a customer can go through in a disconnection of electric service for non-payment. I was visiting my father in the Midwest, who at the time was in the final stages of congestive heart failure. He was discharged from the hospital to live out the rest of his life with home hospice services. He required continuous oxygen and had very limited ability to walk due to his condition.  My stepmother, who uses a powered wheelchair, requires an elevator in the home for accessibility.

Towards the end of my visit, there was a faint knock on the door, and soon after, the power in their condo went out. The knock was from a utility employee before he hung a non-pay notice on the door with a phone number to call. Had I not been present, my father would not have been able to answer the door and my stepmother could have been trapped in the lower level with a non-functional elevator. I quickly ran to the other room to set up the backup battery-powered oxygen concentrator. Without it, my father could have easily had hours or less to live.

My father hadn’t received a single mailed notice of a past due account. It was later found that their utility bills were being mailed to the same address in an adjacent city. A simple address mixup due to an annexation that had happened prior to the subdivision developing inside the city limits. My father and stepmother had assumed that the account was paperless and that they were set up on auto pay from the start.  Their full attention for months had been focused on my father’s health, not on noticing that they hadn’t seen a bill or a charge for electricity from their bank account.

When we called the customer service line, we were told that we could make an immediate payment with a credit card, except the automated line required an account number (which we didn’t have since we didn’t have a bill) and a zip code for validation (which was coded incorrectly in the customer system). We had to get the account number directly from a customer service representative.

 The meter technician outside was compassionate but unwilling to break from procedure and could only refer us to the automated line for payment (which we couldn’t get to work). There were no staff contact numbers available on the website, so the only contact information online was the same number that we had already called. Fortunately, my dad has the means to pay. Had this been a customer without the means to pay, or had they not had a credit card or bank account, the only option would have been to visit the utility company’s office.

 I finally got through after asking for the CEO and was referred to a wonderfully helpful woman who was able to fix the issues and assist with getting the payment resolved. The meter technician had the compassion to stay onsite until the minute he got the turn on notice. He profusely apologized for not being able to help sooner and was crying as it impacted him greatly.

 I am writing this to all my utility colleagues to encourage compassion first and foremost as a starting point when serving customers, especially in such difficult situations.

 My father was yelling at the customer service representative in frustration. Yet, I understand from experience what it is to be on the other side of those calls, and I have taken offense to being yelled at. These types of issues are so common that it can be hard to keep in mind what may be going on with the customer on their side of that call or interaction. In most situations of disconnection for non-payment, we are interacting with customers on a really bad day. Maybe their worst day. Maybe their last day. They may be dealing with crushing debt and must make the decision of whether to eat or whether to have the lights on. They may be dealing with a serious health condition and rely on medical equipment to sustain them — and let me share from direct experience that it is no trivial task to keep the battery backup system for medical equipment on and readily available.

I’ve been in meetings while discussing disconnect procedures with utility staff and have heard comments like, “they are responsible for having battery backups” or “that’s not our job, that’s the medical equipment providers job.” I have justified decisions on the same basis in my career. We must remember that we as an industry provide a service that is critical to sustain life for many of our customers. We must remember that we serve customers who might not have the means to pay with a credit card.

We. Must. Lead. With. Compassion.

Maintaining a financially sustainable utility is critically important, but we must not forget compassion. Those of us in utility leadership must empower our employees to resolve these situations in the moment. Without that empowerment, we are stuck with our established procedures. Procedures do not have compassion, our people have compassion. There is a reason that we serve in public power, most of us are here to give back to our communities. Leveraging this compassion that our employees already have will help us better serve our customers. Let’s empower them to do so.

I am happy to share that this event happened in one of our fellow public power member communities.  Had it not, I believe the outcome could have been very different. Within a day, I received personal emails from the CEO and a vice president with an apology and a full description of the action plan of how they are making changes to prevent this rare situation from happening again.

The first thing that was most sobering to me was understanding how this same thing could have happened in my own utility. None of us have airtight procedures. We all have systems that can fail. We must rely on our employees to bring compassion to our customers. You can’t program compassion into a computer.

The second thing that was most sobering to me was to understand the privilege that I had as a white male who works as a utility professional — and how difficult this situation was for me to navigate to find a resolution. I can only imagine the level of difficultly and the barriers our customers must face who do not share in my privilege. Customers who must navigate through and over barriers of race, socioeconomic status, ability, language, and other hurdles that I don’t have to think about.

This experience will forever shape my leadership in the utility industry. We must relentlessly test our systems and consider all our customers. Our decisions have consequences. Our procedures have consequences. These are real consequences and we cannot overlook that fact.

These type of customer experiences are avoidable. To avoid them, I offer several suggestions on where to start. We should review incidents and all customer feedback to get to the root causes of process errors and procedure gaps. We need to train our employees and empower them to make judgement calls when procedures don’t fit or a process breaks down. We need to leverage our best and brightest staff to look for anomalies and outliers in data. We need to develop a business culture that accepts errors and celebrates process improvement. We need to make ourselves as utility managers accessible to our customers. Most importantly, we need to embrace compassion as a core value to guide our organizations.