First step in fixing Austin Energy’s customer service: ‘We have to really revisit empathy’

Paul Saustrup received a $12,000 water bill last fall for this vacant tract in Southeast Austin where he waters cows from a pump that fills the tank once a month. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I once covered a Florida sheriff who told voters: “When you call 911, I want good things to happen.”

OK, set aside for a moment the fact that if you’re calling 911, something terrible is happening. His point was that once you’re talking to a dispatcher, you should get a response that inspires confidence and produces results, preferably as quickly as possible.

As taxpayers, that’s what we want from any agency we dial up. But as events over the past few months at Austin Energy illustrate, that’s not always what we get.

American-Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell recently chronicled the case of a man who received a $12,000 water bill that was clearly in error — and spun his wheels for two months with Austin Energy’s customer service reps until his wife took the issue to an advisory board. That, finally, sparked a serious review of the bill.

Executives with Austin Energy, which handles the billing for all city utilities, acknowledged a string of failures in that case. After initially insisting the man’s vacant lot must have used enough water to supply a typical household for eight years, investigators determined a water main break had caused the meter to malfunction. They fixed the bill and described the case as an anomaly.

While the dollar amount was unusual, though, the customer service response echoed what hundreds of customers heard when their water bills inexplicably spiked last fall or suddenly soared in the summer of 2015: The bill is right because the meter is right. Somehow you used all of that water, so please pay up.

We now know that two ex-meter readers made up the water use numbers for thousands of homes last fall, prompting refunds for more than 7,000 customers. And after Austin Energy couldn’t explain the 2015 spikes to everyone’s satisfaction, the City Council created a one-time bill reduction program for any future bills that might be out of whack.

HOW IT BEGAN: Austin Water fields complaints of big water bills in Circle C

If you’ve ever called Austin Energy about a high water bill, you know that the customer service rep starts with the assumption that the meter is right, and then asks questions suggesting the problem is on your end. Do you have a swimming pool? A leaky toilet? Broken sprinklers, or too-frequent lawn watering?

But in light of last fall’s billing woes, Austin Energy has been revisiting its customer service policies, and I caught up this week with deputy general manager Kerry Overton to find out what that looks like.

For starters, he said, “one of the things we found through this experience, we have to really revisit empathy.” In some cases, he said, call-takers were so focused on solving the problem — going through that checklist of questions on water use — that they weren’t relating to what customers were actually telling them.

“We had to really slow that process down, show that we’re listening to what the customer is saying,” Overton said. Call-takers are in the midst of training to better empathize with customers up-front, understand the emotions involved, then transition to an explanation of next steps. “We need to help (customers) instead of just taking care of the city’s business,” he said.

Austin Energy used to automatically flag some bills for review, including ones where water use had tripled compared to the same month a year ago. In reality, Overton said, some of those cases were still falling through the cracks and not getting reviewed.

Now Austin Energy is casting an even wider net, automatically flagging bills where water use has at least doubled. And a list of all of the flagged cases, including ones arising from customer complaints, is provided to a supervisor each day, so the supervisor can follow up with investigators on the status of each one.

ALSO READ: How to get $85 if you’re an Austin Energy customer

Meter readers are also taking photos of each meter they read, providing extra documentation for investigators to check if a bill looks askew. Austin Energy and Austin Water are also starting random checks of bills each month, providing more layers of quality control.

Those are good efforts, and we should all be rooting for Austin Energy to get things right. But it’s also in the utility’s best interest to provide top-shelf customer service, Rick Parrish, a customer experience analyst with the Forrester consulting firm, told me. He suggested several reasons:

Customers can become allies. Austin’s utilities need residents’ buy-in on all kinds of initiatives, from conserving water and energy use to increasing recycling efforts to meet the city’s ambitious Zero Waste goal (remember, trash service is on your utility bill, too). Treat us fairly, and we’re more receptive when Austin Energy calls for people to join its GreenChoice program, in which customers pay a little more to support renewable energy, or when the Resource Recovery folks show up with those new organic composting bins (which isn’t all that far away).

Customers can become advocates. Austin’s utilities live in a particularly political environment. Any rate changes need the approval of the City Council. And every few years, it seems, some lawmaker floats the idea of deregulating Austin Energy, a move that would undoubtedly hurt the city and its residents. Customers who are happy with their service will be in the utility’s corner when those moments arrive.

Everyone can use an insurance policy. At some point, something will go wrong, Parrish noted. But utilities, and companies generally, can blunt the backlash if they have a good track record with the public.

And think of the time you’ll save. It’s a drain on everyone’s time when customers keep calling back because the issue wasn’t handled right the first time.

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Customer service consultant and Forbes contributor Micah Solomon said great customer service organizations start with the premise that “the answer is yes, now what is the question?” True, Austin Energy can’t automatically forgive every customer’s bill, but it can welcome the request for a review and provide it in good faith.

Not only should such cases be reviewed immediately, Solomon told me, but investigators should not start with the premise that the customer is wrong and the meter is infallible.

“It’s not a legitimate review if it starts with such an assumption,” he said. “And even if the utility is proven, ultimately, to be correct, it’s a bad recipe for feelings all around.”