It can take up to 30 hours of flight time (including layovers) to fly to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands from the West Coast of the U.S. But the distance does not keep Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, the public power utility in Saipan, from leveraging the expertise of public power experts nationwide.
CUC invited the American Public Power Association to conduct two trainings — on customer service and good governance — at its offices in July 2019. A large number of staff including top-tier managers as well as board members participated and especially benefited from a deeper understanding of the value of public power.
Bringing training onsite offers many benefits to public power entities. Utilities can save on travel costs, train a large group of staff at once, and having the trainings tailored to address their unique needs. Gary Camacho, executive director of CUC, explained that his frontline staff receive basic customer service training when they are hired. However, it was important for staff and managers across different divisions — customer service, billing, operations, finance, human resources — to understand how customer service spans all their functions and accountabilities. So it made sense to cross train 22 staff from across the utility. A CUC board member also participated in the customer service training.
Steve VanderMeer of Hometown Connections, author of Customer Service: Building a Strong Infrastructure for Your Utility, who conducted the training for the Association, said the participants had a good rapport with one another and were eager to learn how other public power utilities approach the issues they encounter. His 3-day training covered what customer service means in a public setting, the responsibilities of non-customer service staff, how to deal with new technologies, best practices in utility collections, and public power customer service benchmarks.
“Customer service is most effective when it is backed by full knowledge and empowerment,” said Camacho. The training helped CUC staff grow their knowledge of policies, regulations, and options to offer customers. “This is the beginning. We now need to empower staff to make decisions so they can help customers,” added Camacho.
While customers seem happy with CUC’s services, Camacho is keen to help them understand the mission and role of public power. He also noted that as the 3-day customer service training resulted in certification, it would help participants with career advancement.
On the heels of the customer service training, VanderMeer delivered the Association’s popular 2-day governance training for a group of 18 that included CUC board members, upper management, and the legal team. This training covers how board and management can work together, their areas of responsibility and overlap, an industry environmental scan, and how to engage in strategic planning for the utility.
Camacho said the governance training was excellent. “It will help us continue to work with our board and plan forward to address new technologies and changing environmental regulations.”
“At a time when we are redefining customer relationships because of new behind the meter technologies, and because customers expect the Amazon level of service from their utilities, ongoing customer service training is critical for public power utilities,” pointed out VanderMeer.
In the same vein, as governing boards have to factor in industry changes and reflect on the how the public power business model adds value to communities they serve, training in strategic planning is critical for them as well, said VanderMeer.
CUC is only the latest in a long list of public power utilities that have leveraged the benefits of the American Public Power Association’s customized, onsite trainings over the years.
At the southernmost point of the continental U.S. — at Keys Energy Services, in Key West, Florida — the Association’s customer service management certification is required for customer service representatives who want to move up the career ladder. This was recommended by a third party that Keys brought in to revamp job descriptions. Erica Zarate, director of customer services at Keys, said “The customer service training we held in May 2019 gave attendees a broader overview and understanding of the electric industry as a whole and how it relates directly to customer service.” Zarate hopes that with the advancement opportunities it offers, the training will help employee retention.
St. George, Utah, another public power community, had a budget to train crew foremen for a number of years. However, logistics made it difficult to find the right training. Utility leadership felt the foremen would benefit from “soft” training in which they got a broader perspective on the utility industry, along with some human resources training. John Miner, another instructor for the Association, went to St. George in June 2019 to conduct two courses — Electric Utility Industry Overview: Strategic Challenges and Trends and Effective Management of Electric Field Operations.
Rene Fleming, manager of energy and water customer service at the City of St. George, Utah said “Being able to bring someone in allowed us to have all our foremen attend and invite some from neighboring utilities.” Craig Patterson, Craig Patterson, one of the city's foreman who participated thought the training was great. "I would love to attend more sessions like this," he said.
The demand for these customized in-house trainings has escalated in recent months, according to Ursula Schryver, the Association’s vice president, education and customer programs. “Public power utilities want to keep up with industry changes. Our in-house courses make it convenient and affordable while bringing the leading experts to their backyard,” she said.
The Association’s in-house trainings cover the gamut. In addition to customer service and governance, popular topics are rate design, cybersecurity, disaster response, public utility accounting, key accounts management, electric industry overview and trends, field operations, and underground distribution. Many of the trainings are offered for certification. “If it’s not already on the menu, we can develop a custom course based on the utility’s needs,” said Schryver.
Many joint action agencies and state and regional associations have brought the Association in-house programs to their regions, to make it easier for their member utilities to get trained closer to home. It means lower costs and less time away from the office.
Camacho says that when he became general manager of CUC three-and-a-half years ago, his priority was to make the utility an active member of the American Public Power Association. He has not let distance or time deter his own trips to many Association conferences where he has benefited from learning and networking opportunities. He is glad the in-house trainings help him extend those benefits to all his staff and board.
“We take advantage of all Association opportunities — trainings, webinars, mutual aid, and more. The relationships we’ve established with Association staff, industry vendors, and other public power leaders have helped our utility tremendously,” said Camacho.