Water utilities operate as the sole provider of drinking water and wastewater services in their communities. With the exception of bottled water and the occasional septic tank, there are no comparable alternatives to what the utility provides. It’s convenient and relatively cheap, and people typically don’t think much about it.

So why have a customer-oriented approach in your utility?

In order to do business in a highly regulated, capital-intensive industry, utilities generate revenues through rates and occasional increases. To do this, they need the public on their side.

For water utilities, though, just about every customer contact is likely to start out on the wrong foot because of a service disruption — a sewer backup, a water outage, or a billing error. It feels like you’re at a disadvantage from the start.

But this is where opportunity lies.

What if you could project an attentive approach on the phone, a rapid response on the street, and employees who show that they care about resolving a problem? The result could be a better customer experience, and in turn, increased public support for when that next capital program hits the ballot.

If you’re already engaging in this way with your customers, keep it up. However, if you think your organization needs to play catch up in the customer service department, here are a few strategies to help step up your game.

Changing the mindset

The first step is changing the mindset of your organization. Move from a “take it or leave it” philosophy to one of service. This isn’t easy. Emphasizing service is a tone, a culture, that starts at the top of the organization. It is not a hope, but an expectation. It takes straight talk and persistence to create this mindset, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Providing a quality response to customers’ concerns needs to be top-of-mind for your entire organization. The customer is not picking up the phone for a social call. They have a concern, and they deserve a quality response.

Creating and maintaining this kind of culture change requires eliminating inconsistencies. You cannot expect your staff to provide great service if their internal experiences are to the contrary. HR, IT, supervision and, yes, management, all need to walk the walk.

This reality is often the biggest stumbling block because while the folks on the street or on the phone know the paying customers, your internal service providers do not, and may not operate in that context. They often struggle with the concept that fellow employees or subordinates are internal customers that deserve attention. It is everyone’s job to solve customer problems, internal or external. Your message should be: Excellent service is recognized and rewarded. Poor behavior is corrected.

Give them some training

Encouraging your staff to take on this new mindset also means getting them some training in customer service. Some people naturally excel at this, while others simply need to learn it.

The best customer service providers I have ever met were the employees who day after day helped homeowners through basement backups. Listening, being attentive, allowing for some anger, and then solving the problem without making matters worse — that’s the goal. Too often, jaded service providers want to treat the customer as if it’s their fault. Even when the problem cannot be fixed quickly or easily, the approach is what matters — no runaround, just listening, being honest and helping wherever possible.

Training should include interpersonal approaches, but also cover procedures and responses to routine situations, and provide the employee with an understanding of their latitude in solving a customer problem. If you want to turn heads, empower your staff to make reasonable calls on customer complaints that can be solved on the first try.  For the more difficult decisions, provide employees with clear instructions that allow for the right person to arrive at a solution.

Often, poor service is about employees simply not knowing what to do and not wanting to make a mistake.

The personal touch

If you want to be better than the majority of businesses that people call, make sure that a human being is on your end of the line.

What is your reaction when you call a business and you get the automated phone system – do you feel like all is lost? In our efforts to cut costs, many utilities opt for the single best choice for starting off the customer experience poorly — an automated attendant.  Remember that the reason the customer is calling is probably because he or she is unhappy with some aspect of your service already – don’t give them another thing to complain about right off the bat.

When organizations do use a real person, they often make the mistake of putting inexperienced or poor performers on the phone. Make sure the person representing your business has a pleasant demeanor, knows the protocol and gets people where they need to be on the first try with no run around.

In cases where the right solution isn’t clear, how about taking a number and calling the customer back so that they can be routed properly? This is a tough job, so pay attention to stress levels and share the load.

Setting a precedent

Another concern that gets in the way of customer service is the fear of setting precedent. Utilities can get hung up on this issue because there is a strongly held belief that if you do for one you must do the same for everyone.

Certainly, there are areas where consistency is paramount and holding the line is essential, like billing rates or certain services. But in other cases, worrying about setting precedent can be a trivial issue that simply prevents you from satisfying the customer. The trick, of course, is knowing the difference. So rather than being bureaucratic and not allowing any deviations, allow trusted, knowledgeable people in your organization to make appropriate calls for the customer when it makes sense.

Believe it or not, all of your customers don’t get together and discuss the finer points of their customer experience. But even if they did, the call your staff made would be the same for the other guy under the same circumstances, right?  If mistakes are made in doing this, what is the worst that can happen? Your customer is happier and it becomes a teaching moment for your staff so that the same decision is not repeated.

Work practices with the customer in mind

Organizational practices evolve over time as things change. Often, the work processes are created for someone’s benefit, but since the customer isn’t in the mix his or her needs can be forgotten. Taking a look at what you put the customer through is a great way of getting real about customer service.

Making things simple for customers or stakeholders sends a message that the utility cares about their needs. Conducting a periodic review of business practices is an excellent tool for continuous improvement.  Next time you do this, have a member of the staff review work flows from the customer’s perspective, and good things will happen.

Get data on service

What is measured is improved. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers what their experience was with your staff. Customer surveys are common in the private sector and they are an essential tool in changing an organization’s mindset about customer service. This can be as simple as a quick verbal survey following a call, or a more extensive approach involving an outside survey firm. The results, used appropriately, can jump-start your customer service effort. The key is that they are repeated, and trending is provided so improvements can be seen.

After more than 10 years of surveying, a large Midwestern wastewater utility discovered that the customers who liked them the best were those who had previously called with a service problem. This was because the utility had emphasized the importance of customer service and addressed problems by reviewing and sharing survey results with staff.

Keep in mind that if you use survey results punitively, the result can backfire. Employees want to succeed. If you are communicating the desire to improve customer service and you provide your staff with a view of customer perceptions, they will start moving the needle for you. Give your staff the vision and tools, and let them run with it.

Start now — the road is long

Changing the culture of a utility is heavy lifting, requiring a long view and the commitment to get there. Although some of these suggestions can be instituted quickly, others are a matter of changing the way the organization thinks about itself.

Customer service is a strategic issue that exists for every utility. Start now by making this effort the mission of your management team. If you encounter difficulty, get help crafting the right business, training and level of service solutions. Your future rate increases may well depend on it.


About the experts

Jeff Theerman is Vice President and Senior Utility Consultant for Brown and Caldwell. Before joining BC, Theerman served as Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s Executive Director and led one of the largest wastewater and stormwater management utilities in the country. A member of NACWA’s board of directors since 2004, Theerman served as the organization’s president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
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