| Customer service: your utility’s behind-the-scenes public trust builder
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Customer service: your utility’s behind-the-scenes public trust builder

CSR Pei-Shuan Lin with the City of Durham, N.C.Water utilities are heralded for the essential role they play supporting community safety and health. And within each utility, customer service professionals -- who rarely attract the spotlight – are essential to making or breaking customers’ trust in the organization. (Pictured right, Customer Service Representative Pei-Shuan Lin with the City of Durham, N.C.)

Maria DeChellis“The role that customer service representatives manage within a utility is so very critical and difficult, especially now during the pandemic,” said Maria DeChellis (pictured left), a member of AWWA’s Customer Service Committee and a trustee of the Technical & Educational Council’s Management and Leadership Division. 

“Every day, customer service professionals conduct triage over the phone, talking with customers about how to pay bills in different installments and trying to determine what can be done within a household to bring down the bill,” she added. “With AMI (Advanced Meter Infrastructure), utility customer representatives can analyze meter data down to the hour level. They are looking well outside of the box, in multiple systems, to help their customers.”

DeChellis has worked in the utility industry for more than 20 years as a consultant, service provider and utility leader. Currently vice president of customer engagement with Utilligent, she recently launched a nonprofit, AccessH2O, which provides financial and educational support to water utility customers struggling to afford their bills. 

Customer service’s expanding role

“When I started working in the water sector, it was difficult to find a utility that did not refer to a customer as a ratepayer, and customer service was defined by the function of answering the phone, not for the analysis or service that was provided,” DeChellis said.

“Now, a customer service professional functions as a therapist, a plumber, an advisor, an analyst, and a trusted resource,” she added. “They manage discussions with customers who can’t afford their bill, don’t know how to tell if their toilet is leaking, want information about water quality, are concerned about rising water rates, and don’t trust the utility.”  

Heidi HackettHeidi Hackett (pictured right), also a member of AWWA’s Customer Service Committee and utility finance manager with the City of Durham, N.C., agrees.

“Most customer service professionals deal with unhappy people all day who frequently yell and curse at them,” she said. “Combine that with literally being tied to your desk by a phone cord and frequently having to work overtime or through lunch if others are out, and it is a TOUGH job. Customer service professionals get very little recognition and credit and it takes a toll.”

Tarja NummelaTarja Nummela (pictured left), another member of the Customer Service Committee and customer service manager with the City of Tempe, Ariz., said, “Customer service representatives are often still considered entry level, even as their responsibilities and job descriptions have evolved with technology. Pay increases are difficult to negotiate, even though often these staff are the only ‘face’ that residents ever speak to in the city.”

Recognizing the value of customer service

DeChellis credits the Customer Service Committee for sharing best practices and ongoing discussions about challenges and successes. The committee has helped develop Association resources such as the Customer Service Certificate Program, which offers an opportunity to achieve recognition and job progression. More customer service resources are listed on AWWA’s Customer Service Resource page.

“When customer service is done really well, it can smooth the approval path for a rate case because customers have faith that they’re getting Christopher Dunntransparent answers that are fair, as well as good service,” DeChellis said. “If the customer service process is broken, however, it will impact every step a utility takes because customers will not have trust in their bills or their water.” (Pictured right, Customer Service Representative Christopher Dunn with the City of Tempe, Ariz.) 

To enhance the effectiveness of water utility customer service programs, the Customer Service Committee recommends that utility leaders consider these actions:

  • Recognize and support, both educationally and financially, the essential function of customer service as a crucial investment in resiliency, safety and success.
  • Allocate adequate funding for customer service staff training and skills development. 
  • Develop a career path for customer service representatives to enable job progression and additional skill building.
  • Ensure customer service operations staff reflect and embrace the diversity of the community they serve, including the ability to conduct business in different languages and job descriptions that accommodate a diverse selection of employees with different abilities.
  • Review and update customer service job descriptions to reflect and compensate the required technical skills.
  • Extend customer service beyond the phone by reaching out into communities. Communicate with nonprofit and community agencies to provide ongoing, proactive information about your water system water and listen to residents’ concerns.