Any public power utility looking for an established checklist and a clearly delineated road map to customer service excellence will be disappointed. There is no single path to excellent customer service, even though the desired result — happy customers — remains the same.
The goal posts may move continually as the expectations of customer-owners evolve, but the fundamentals of what makes for good customer service — compassion, know-how, communication, and respect — don’t budge.
That’s why public power utilities that deliver extraordinary service, including those regularly recognized for excellent customer satisfaction by J.D. Power, work hard to make sure serving customers is at the core of their organizational culture.
“Achieving customer service excellence is a long, steady journey of building culture, systems, and processes,” said Michael Mendonca, senior director of customer services for Salt River Project in Arizona. “It starts with the general manager and cascades down from there.”
“It’s all about culture,” said Karen Thomas, assistant vice president for customer relations at the Chattanooga Electric Power Board in Tennessee.
A very high percentage of customer service excellence flows naturally from an organization’s values and the way it does business, according to Susan Postans, vice president for customer service at Florida’s Kissimmee Utility Authority.
7 Takeaways for Excellence in Customer Service
1. Foster a culture of service, starting at the top.
2. Do business the way customers want (not the way you may want).
3. Listen to your customers.
4. Walk in the customer’s shoes — and remove the pain points.
5. Hire customer service representatives for attitude, train for excellence, flex for efficiency.
6. Offer services that respect the customer’s time and preferences.
7. Measure what matters; monitor that issues are resolved.
For Whose Convenience?
“Why we do [what we do] comes down to one question: Does it help our customers?” said Erica Erland, corporate communications manager for Clark Public Utilities. “Customers expect to get business done the way they want. If a self-service option doesn’t work for them, they expect to be able to make a call and speak to someone pretty quickly.”
EPB’s decade-plus journey to customer service excellence started by looking at every business process and asking, “Do we do it that way for our convenience or our customers’?” If a process was being done for the utility’s convenience only, EPB changed it.
“We thought changing all those processes would cause us heartburn, but it didn’t,” said Thomas. “Back then, nearly all of our service interactions were in person, whether they needed to be or not. Now, 99 percent of interactions are handled in other ways — over the phone, by email, or by text.”
SRP’s customer service leadership team stays current on customers’ wants and needs by regularly spending time listening to customer calls to the contact center. “There’s no better, unfiltered way to understand what’s on our customers’ minds than to listen to their actual voices,” explained Mendonca. “Each week, at staff meetings, we listen to about 20 minutes of customer calls.”
Walk in the Customer’s Shoes
Clark Public Utilities, which provides electricity to about 200,000 customers in Washington state, uses customer journey mapping to develop and evaluate customer service experiences.
Unlike process mapping, which documents internal business processes, journey mapping takes utilities into the emotional lives of customers as they conduct business with the utility. The process can reveal areas where a customer might get frustrated, such as having to wade through a long list of menu options on a phone recording or coming up empty when searching for information on a utility website.
“There’s no silver bullet to providing great customer service, but as our customer demographics fragment, we have to work with a broader set of expectations,” said Erland. “Our customers don’t appreciate flashy, but they do appreciate value.”
By walking a mile, or more, in the shoes of their customers, public power utilities can identify and remove obstacles to providing excellent service. Through developing these customer journeys, Clark was able to identify features that customers desire — such as a mobile-responsive outage map and simplified online outage reporting. They kept live and local phone-based customer service representatives focused on helping customers with more specific concerns.
Bryan Lewis, Santee Cooper’s manager of retail services, agreed. “The fundamental approach is to ensure you are looking at your business processes through the eyes of your customers. When gaps are discovered that cause pain points and require more effort by the customer, you must adjust your processes to remove the pain points.”
Customer Service Culture Starts on Day One
“The killer application for excellent customer service is an intense focus on customers,” commented SRP’s Mendonca. “We hire for attitude and a smile in the voice, and we train regularly for the rest.”
“For us, customer service is not limited to the customer service department. It’s everyone’s job,” said Clark Public Utilities’ Erland. “We hire for a cultural fit. New hires have to ‘get it’ about delivering excellent customer service.”
For example, Clark’s field technicians draw praise for their kindness and respect for customers, even when disconnecting electric service. Although the compliments usually come in after the electricity has been turned back on, Erland noted how this shows that employees don’t have to be disagreeable to do a disagreeable job.
“We invest in a culture of empowerment here that customers and employees value,” said Erland. “We all live by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” she added. “A lot of times, that comes down to training and judgment. Service is what we provide — it’s not an ancillary thing.”
At EPB, Thomas said the utility spends a week onboarding new employees by discussing what EPB is and why it operates the way it does. No one discusses the specifics of their jobs. At the end of the week, EPB tells new hires, “If you like what you have seen and heard, welcome aboard. We’ll see you next Monday morning. And if you don’t want to join us, that’s OK too.”
“We have never lost one new hire in the three years since we instituted this new onboarding process,” said Thomas. EPB is in the envious position of being extraordinarily selective about whom it hires: 8 to 10 employees are hired for every 800 to 1,000 applications filed. Those numbers are on par with Southwest Airlines and Apple.
“Our onboarding process is one way of showing people the importance of everyone owning customer service,” continued Thomas, a 37-year veteran of EPB. “To be successful in a service business, you’ve got to start with the culture. When you dedicate yourself to that, you will lose some employees who have grown comfortable doing things the way they have always been done.”
Happy Employees = Happy Customers
A decade ago, the Kissimmee Utility Authority began arranging for phone representatives to work from home. Today, 32 CSRs work from home on a regular basis, except when they need to come to headquarters for training.
KUA’s Postans said the phone reps in that program get back two hours per day as they don’t have to spend time fighting traffic to get to and from the office.
“It’s not easy to fill a phone rep job, and keeping good reps isn’t easy either. The work-from-home program has helped us retain veteran CSRs who are committed to the organization,” Postans commented.
Having a permanent work-from-home arrangement leads to happier representatives, who in turn provide higher quality service to customers, all of which help KUA shave phone wait times and expand the hours when a live phone representative is available.
Chatting Without Face Time
In South Carolina, Santee Cooper’s customers have been able to set up alternate payment arrangements via text, following the public power utility’s installation of online chat in 2012. The utility, which serves about 179,000 retail customers across the state, has two CSRs who engage in a total of about 400 online chats each month. Customers also use the chat feature to ask about account balances and outages and to gather other information.
Bryan Lewis, manager of retail services, estimated that Santee Cooper pays a few hundred dollars per month as a licensing fee for each CSR using the online chat service.
“It’s pretty small compared to our walk-in centers, but sometimes customers don’t want to interact with another person, particularly if it concerns payment arrangements,” said Lewis.
Lewis is quick to point out that the chat feature is appreciated by customers of all ages. It provides faster answers than the phone, and sometimes people don’t want to search through the website to find the information they need. Online chat allows people to go about their regular activities or work while they get a question answered.
“It’s another channel where we can meet the customers where they are and provide immediate responses to their questions,” he said.
Measure What Matters
Salt River Project, which serves more than a million customers in and around metropolitan Phoenix, surveys customers continuously, and management regularly reviews the responses. As part of its mission to become the best at customer satisfaction across all industries, the public power utility benchmarks its performance against customer satisfaction leaders like Apple, Amazon, Cadillac, Neiman Marcus, The Ritz-Carlton, Southwest Airlines, and USAA. Three years ago, SRP stopped measuring call center representatives’ talk time and started focusing instead on first-call resolution — or how well CSRs answer callers’ questions completely on first contact.
Providing high-quality customer service does not have to cost more than bare bones customer service.
Mendonca added, “Over the last 10 years, we have decreased our cost per customer by 17 percent by implementing technologies that not only provide customer value but also enable operational efficiencies. We have focused heavily on process to streamline the customer experience and capture operational efficiencies.”
Lewis noted that Santee Cooper has maintained, and in some cases lowered, its customer service total cost by introducing new technology and initiatives that have automated or eliminated processes. And customer satisfaction remains high.
Thomas credits EPB’s 24/7 year-round customer phone representatives for helping to improve the utility’s first-call resolution scores and lower its bad debt. “The bond-rating agencies have noted that we have virtually zero bad debt, which is unheard of. Part of that is because we meet the customers where they are with an integrated suite of options.”
From Utility to All City Requests in Provo
Karen Larsen, divisional director of the PROVO311 customer service center in Utah, manages a team of more than 30 CSRs who provide a broad range of administrative services to the citizens of Provo. In addition to handling traditional payments and questions about electric, water, wastewater and streetlight services, her CSRs issue airport security badges, process licenses for businesses and animals, make park pavilion reservations, and process festival permit applications. Soon, the center will also process payment of parking tickets and passport applications.
“The range of services we provide is unique,” she said. “Any city service that could be processed in two or three minutes, we do that.”
The utility didn’t plan to take on all the city’s requests. It gradually transitioned into the role after initially jumping in to help take calls for other city departments when those offices were closed.
“You might say we morphed into this operation naturally over the years — simply by knowing how to provide good customer service, not only to utility customers but to all customer types,” said Larsen.
To meet the utility’s goal of serving customers efficiently, before the center offers a new service, staff members go through a one-hour training on how to process the request and properly answer questions.
Before becoming the city’s 311 center, Provo didn’t really measure walk-in transactions, instead focusing on metrics from its phone service. Now, all walk-in transactions are counted, and counter staff are scored on quality of service, just as phone representatives have been. Trainers meet with CSRs monthly to review a service quality score card and discuss potential areas for improvement.
The residents of Provo love having one number to call for all their municipal questions. Since 2012, when “PROVO311” became the city’s official municipal contact center, the walk-in transactions have doubled and call volume has increased 50 percent.
Karen’s well-prepared team is providing these additional services with roughly the same number of employees since before transitioning to be the city’s 311 center.
Giving Customers Control With Prepaid Services
Sometimes a program can optimally balance the needs of both the customer and the utility. For more than 10 years, the Salt River Project has offered a voluntary prepay metering program, M-Power, to its customers in the greater Phoenix area.
About 17 percent of SRP’s 155,000 customers have signed up for the program, which has reduced electric use by about 12 percent, addressed bad debt, and reduced disconnection issues.
Customers get data on their energy use in real time via an in-home display and can better control their electric budget and become more mindful of how they use electricity.
Some utilities regard prepay programs as a niche service, mainly meant for low-income customers or college students, but SRP has customers of all kinds enrolled in the program.
More than 8 in10 M-Power customers report that they prefer or strongly prefer the prepaid program over traditional utility billing, and customer satisfaction with the program has hovered around 90 percent for the last six years. In addition, 86 percent of customers said the program helped them use electricity more wisely.