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

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.”

Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.