The Metropolitan Utilities District is taking steps to fix a spate of customer service problems that left many ratepayers with their calls unanswered or on hold for lengthy periods.
Thirteen new employees started this month in the MUD call center, where customer service had fallen “below a level acceptable to our standards,” Stephanie Mueller, vice president of customer services, reported to the board in an April memo.
She was referring to a stretch of unusually subpar service at the call center. From 2010 to 2013 the number of unanswered calls rose from one in 10 to about three in 10, according to district data. In January, an average caller spent more than nine minutes on hold; the district’s current goal is three minutes or less.
Workload was one issue. Calls to the customer service center have increased 14 percent since 2010, Mueller said.
Keeping employees was another. At one point, turnover among call center employees reached 50 percent, Mueller reported.
The call center is an entry-level job, and most of the employees moved on to higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the district, said Debra Schneider, MUD’s chief finance officer.
The district also is adjusting to different customer service and billing software, introduced in June 2013.
Many callers have billing questions, and recently the bills have been high. A colder-than-average winter drove up natural gas prices, which trickled down to ratepayers.
And MUD is planning for a looming spike in sewer fees, which the district collects for the City of Omaha. The city expects to spend more than $2 billion on its massive sewer-separation project, financed by user fees that will rise 45 percent in the next several years.
Those factors are reflected in the bills of customers on the level-payment plan, which bills customers the same amount each month based on actual and anticipated use.
A typical residential customer on the level-payment plan now carries a deficit of $200, compared with a deficit balance of $53 at the same point last year, said Rhonda Chantry, vice president for rates, regulatory affairs and revenue. If customers were to settle up to recalculate their level payments, their monthly bills would rise from $127 to about $157.
Naturally, customers have questions. And with 13 new employees in the call center — at an annual cost of $500,000 — it will be easier to handle the calls when they come in, Mueller said.
In addition to hiring more people, the district is expanding its quality assurance program, working in more call center training and starting an employee incentive program based on positive customer feedback, Mueller said.
Chantry said the district also is looking at tweaks to its billing process. There could soon be new options for large customers who are currently billed separately for multiple meters at a single address — a longtime complaint.
And the utility is looking at rearranging its bills to make charges more understandable. For level-payment customers, that could mean highlighting the outstanding balance, which some customers can miss.
Early results have been positive. Already, Mueller said, call center hold times are down, and so is the rate of unanswered calls and the number of customer service complaints.
Longer term, as the district develops a broader strategic plan, one of the goals is to find better metrics for meeting customer service goals, Schneider said. For now, MUD wants to hit a 90 percent rate on answering calls and bring down the average time a customer spends on hold to three minutes or less.
“I feel much better than where we were a year ago,” Mueller said. “We’re continuing to make progress. We’re at a point where we can really start improving.”
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