Excelling at Customer Service Takes Teamwork

Providing safe and reliable electric power takes the coordination of multiple teams, vendors and partners. Here’s the story of how three organizations serving the Fresno, California, area made it happen by making teamwork their No. 1 priority.

By Pat Paternostro, ARCT; Joe Stewart, PG&E; Tony Carlos, Trees Inc.

Most customers don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to electricity, or about what goes into making it possible to turn on a lightbulb, watch TV or access any other modern necessity. Those whose job is to make this possible, however, know that it takes hard work, dedication and teamwork to pull it off.

In a mission to provide better customer service in the Fresno, California, service district, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), ACRT Inc. and Trees Inc. created a plan that has helped enhance overall service to its customer base. It’s a multifaceted approach that has served the utility and its partners well over the past several years.

Following are some of the essential tenets of their approach to providing better service.

Evaluating Customer Service

PG&E’s service platform revolves around three critical metrics that are followed across every service its provides: safety, quality of work and customer satisfaction.

Safety and quality of work are straightforward measures. Safety can be measured by how many accidents are reported each month, work quality by how often crews must be sent into the field to make corrections.

Customer service can be a little more slippery. One of the ways that PG&E measures customer service is through a regularly distributed survey among its customers, based on a sliding scale. Across the entire service network, PG&E’s goal is to maintain an average customer service rating of “excellent.” To achieve that goal, PG&E has acted on customer feedback while evaluating how the entire organization works together as a team to provide excellent service.

Enhancing Customer Communication

Due to PG&E’s strong relationship with local tree company Trees Inc., a pilot program was launched based on improving communication with every customer. The participants included crews from ACRT Inc., which is PG&E’s vegetation management consulting partner, Trees Inc. and PG&E employees.

The pilot program included a series of focus groups to create a platform for ACRT’s foresters and Trees Inc.’s tree care workers to get to know one another. Although their work overlaps, the group sessions allowed foresters and tree care workers to become acquainted on a personal level and to chat about shared business as it relates to their important work.

In addition, the focus groups offered field personnel a firsthand look at decision making at the management level. Participants viewed customer satisfaction surveys, metric scorecards and patrol standards, offering transparency into how field operations were connected to the goals of the management teams.

Most importantly, the focus groups brought clarity to sometimes difficult customer scenarios that these teams often face. Teams were given talking points and training on how to deal with these scenarios appropriately, effectively and consistently. Creating a uniform experience for customers when challenging situations arise-unwanted but sometimes necessary in areas like trimming, billing disputes and more-is critical to overall excellent satisfaction.

In addition, industry literature was distributed to provide a credible reference to utility vegetation management best practices, as well as visual tools to help customers better understand the necessary work performed by PG&E and its partners each day.

Customer Service in Action

When it’s time to perform the work, PG&E expects that its customers are made fully aware of the job that is being done. It’s the job of PG&E, ACRT and Trees Inc. to communicate that message clearly before performing the work as safely and accurately as possible.

All efforts are made to make personal contact with PG&E’s customers. That’s not possible in every case, however, because many customers are often at work or elsewhere while foresters and tree care workers are working on their property.

Knowing these variables, PG&E developed a series of communications that help enhance overall service and transparency. These items include door hangers, which explain in detail how work will be done on their property, and a business card which directs customers to a dedicated Web page where they can learn more about how ACRT, Trees Inc. and PG&E can provide excellent customer service.

Further, when crews do come into direct contact with customers, PG&E and its partners have created verbiage that promotes customer service excellence. This same language has been incorporated into foresters’ voicemail messages and more.

Continuous Improvement Together

In addition to improved customer communication, there was opportunity to enhance cross-team communication as well. PG&E thus instituted a series of cross-training activities between ACRT’s foresters and Trees Inc.’s tree care workers. The goal was to forge a better understanding of how the other works, for better coordination and cooperation.

PG&E has always operated under the guiding principle that tree care workers and foresters are working toward the same goal. Reaching that goal can be done more efficiently when both teams work together.

There are, of course, differences in the respective work performed by foresters and tree care workers, and therefore, breakdowns in communications can occur. Such a disconnect between prescribed work from foresters and the actual work carried out by tree care workers can lead to a negative effect on customer service.

When everyone understands each others’ jobs, however, it’s far easier to work more productively for customers. Job shadowing, combined team meetings and daily communication are just a few initiatives ACRT and Trees Inc. instituted to improve teamwork. As a result of these initiatives, while the scope of the work has not changed, the approach is more strategic. PG&E’s customer service has seen continuous improvement because of that approach.

The pilot program in Fresno has been successful. PG&E is working on expanding similar programs throughout its territories in California because the results have made an impact. Through coordinated efforts to boost communication-to customers and among PG&E teams-all are truly empowered to provide excellence in customer service.

Pat Paternostro Paternostro has been with ACRT for 22 years, including seven years as operations manager. He earned an associate degree in forestry from Pennsylvania State College of Technology and is a Certified Arborist Utility Specialist.

Joe Stewart has served 16 years in the industry. He has worked four years as VPM for the Fresno and Kern divisions of PG&E. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. He is a Certified Arborist Utility Specialist.

Tony Carlos has been with Trees Inc. for one year. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from California State University, Sacramento, and a juris doctorate from the McGeorge School of Law. He is a member of The State Bar of California.

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