Customer service — Serving customers better by appreciating employees

by Pam Bellino, Unitil

For a public utility, positive customer relations are a top priority. High-quality service is the result of communication and information. This needs to be done in a timely and efficient fashion. It requires considering how customers want to access information, what information they need and when they need it, and who is informed to provide it. Public utilities rely on their customer service representatives–the first touch point for customers–to be these informed providers. Unitil, a provider of natural gas and electricity to more than 175,000 customers in New England, in recent years has taken internal and external measures to assist its customers better while retaining its top employee talent.

Unitil’s customer service department comprises more than 60 people with more than 30 of them in the call center. Many of the reps have years of experience in the industry, and some have worked at Unitil since the department was created more than 15 years ago. Customer service can be a difficult and demanding job function. Unitil averages more than 350,000 customer calls annually on topics ranging from outage reports to requests for new service to billing and usage questions. Unitil reps work hard to solve customers’ problems and make them feel heard and validated.

Customer Service Reps, Energy Efficiency Experts

One of the most effective ways Unitil has increased satisfaction and become a customer ally is by acting as energy efficiency experts. Often customers call with concerns that bills are higher than they should be. Unitil reps used to pull up a customer’s bill, explain the charges and often check the meter reading.

“As times have changed, our customers have become more conscious of their energy use,” said Lisa Desrochers, manager of customer relations for Unitil. “We continuously educate our reps so they can serve as energy experts and respond to our customers’ questions with clear, thorough explanations and advice.”

Now Unitil plays more of a detective role and helps customers determine what areas of their homes draw the most power and how Unitil might help reduce the load. The company explores solutions such as unplugging unused appliances, investing in energy-efficient appliances and considering programs that offer rebates or financial assistance.

This approach came as a result of reps’ sharing what they do in their homes to reduce energy use. Because the customer relations representatives work in close proximity to one another, the practice became contagious.

“When you work closely with others, there are more opportunities to share people’s good ideas,” Desrochers said. “The knowledge sharing that goes on among reps can happen regardless of a call center’s size. The important thing is having a true willingness to serve the customer and constantly finding new ways to improve that service.”

Unitil and its customers are served by technology that allows reps to get a day-by-day reading of customers’ energy usage to aid them in solving mysteries of high bills, said Sandy Forcier, a customer relations representative who has been with Unitil six years.

“We used to send a technician out to investigate high-bill complaints, but now we have a command center and can get daily reads,” Forcier said. “We can ask a customer, “ËœOn this day, did you do something extra? Did you do lots of laundry? Did you have company over? Customers can be upset if it’s a high bill, but if we can look at their daily usage and see if something stands out, and if they remember what they did, it relieves anxiety. And it saves time and money because we don’t have to send a tech out.”

Shorter Hold Times, Increased Availability During Major Outages

One of the greatest challenges to a utility’s customer service department is a major storm or outage. Unitil has worked several years to streamline its communications and deliver timely, accurate information to customers. The customer relations department also has increased its availability and reduced call wait times during major storms and outages by enlisting temps and implementing a triage system for customer calls.

Twenty to 25 temps are trained at a time in the days preceding an anticipated storm or outage event and can be trained in two hours. These reps are trained to manage outage reporting; issues of greater complexity are routed to appropriate employees or departments.

“In a major event, the temps are putting in the outage ticket, and it’s very simple training,” Forcier said. “It means that the customer isn’t waiting on hold for very long.”

Using temps enables Unitil to speak with customers quickly, remove some of the pressure from full-time employees and eliminate overly long shifts. Unitil also rotates staff to provide overnight coverage for customers who call with concerns outside of normal business hours. During major outages, some reps work overnight along with a supervisor. The company allows several reps to work off-site as remote agents during emergencies, Desrochers said.

“Allowing some reps to work remotely opens up additional work space for our temps, and it prevents reps from having to be on the road if it’s unsafe to drive,” Desrochers said. “We get more seamless and immediate integration when we’re not waiting for several reps to drive to the call center.”

When managing complex outages in major storms, Unitil staffs its call center with 50 to 70 people answering phones.

“Our goal is for customers to experience minimal wait time,” Desrochers said. “We strive to answer 80 percent of calls in 20 seconds or less. Even during a storm, it’s rare that a customer will have to wait any longer than a minute on hold.”

Unitil strives to minimize wait times, but its broader goal is to be transparent with customers and let them know what to expect, especially during outages across the system.

Customer Relations Representative Ryan Tardif joined Unitil as a temporary call center employee during the October 2011 New England snowstorm.

“They made it very, very easy to work a storm,” Tardif said.

He said the company scheduled employees in 10- to 12-hour shifts to allow employees to fully rest between shifts.

“Everyone was staggered so there was coverage at all times, and everyone got a break to sleep,” he said. “They catered to us the entire time. We didn’t have to worry about food or snacks; there was a constant supply.”

Providing snacks might seem simple, but such steps ensure reps have the energy to continually pick up the phone and talk to customers. It also assures reps that their basic needs are not forgotten, despite the circumstances.

The Fun Team

Call center work can be notoriously challenging, and Unitil aims to mitigate that by training its reps to handle routine and complicated customer calls. But we also try to communicate to our reps how much we value the work they do.

Unitil’s customer service Fun Team is a volunteer group of four representatives who rotate each year. Their goal is to boost team morale by providing goodies and peer recognition. Once a month, the Fun Team provides cupcakes, bagels or another edible treats. It recognizes reps on their birthdays, decorates for holidays and conducts desk-decorating contests.

“It’s a fun way to relieve stress,” Forcier said. “The fun things change every year–there are new ideas and it’s always fresh. It does work.”

Unitil also conducts a quarterly customer service recognition meeting, at which it provides general company updates and recognizes employees for completing professional development coursework, Tardif said.

“Employees recognize each other for providing great help or having great attitudes,” Tardif said. “In a stressful job, everything they do to keep us placated is very helpful.”

Tardif, a member of the Fun Team, said the group broadcasts pictures and anecdotes on TV monitors around the call center area. These images include everything from tongue twisters to notes of employee recognition written by customers.

Reps’ comments reflect the appreciative, team atmosphere.

“We’ll help co-workers who aren’t feeling well, and we’ll take turns helping new employees,” Tardif said. “We all work together to get things done. I’ve worked at other call centers before, and there wasn’t a lot of compensation–and I don’t mean just money. Here, everything seems a lot happier. I’ve never seen anyone get upset or leave on bad terms. It’s a marked difference.”

Call centers, regardless of size, can benefit from small efforts to remind employees they are appreciated.

Adapting for the Future

Unitil is planning for faster response times, more personalized and higher-quality service for customers whose issues require it, and more automated functions for simpler tasks, such as requesting new service or arranging a payment plan. During the next couple of years, Unitil anticipates launching an upgraded online system to streamline operations, communicating with customers via their platforms of choice, and continuing to provide outage information in real time.

Increased technology doesn’t mean Unitil will sacrifice personal, individualized service, Tardif said.

“We will be able to email customers more often for minor things, such as updating contact info,” Tardif said. “It will streamline our communication and free us up to spend more time talking with customers who have more complicated questions or concerns. The online system will offer faster, more comprehensive service than going through prompts on the phone.”

Unitil customers want to reach a solution the first time they call, and reps help them get there. Rarely does a call escalate to manager level.


Unitil Customer Service Key Philosophies:

  • One-call resolution.
  • Call customer by his or her first name to establish a personal connection.
  • Balance time spent with a customer with the need to answer other calls in the queue. Never rush a customer off the phone.
  • Lead the customer to a solution. Ask questions to determine a solution, rather than letting a customer’s emotions dictate the way.

In Unitil’s 2012 Customer Service Survey, 94 percent of 566 respondents said they were satisfied with their experience in speaking to a call representative, and 98 percent said the representative was courteous.


Author

Pam Bellino is Unitil’s director of customer service operations, where she oversees the call center, billing and credit and collections departments. She has been with Unitil since January 2011 and brings more than 30 years of utility customer service experience. She also serves on the customer service committee for the Energy Council of the Northeast (ECNE), a regional trade association dedicated to safe, reliable and efficient energy service.

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