Tuesday, July 24, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Despite water bill debacle, Austin’s utility customer service rating remains unharmed

The wounds that last fall’s water bill catastrophe left behind had the potential to open up once again as Austin Energy reviewed its customer service ratings and presented the findings at the July 16 meeting of the Electric Utility Commission.

“Didn’t we have a huge spike after the water problem that’s not reflected here?” inquired Commissioner Dave Tuttle.

However, it appears that the masses of angry voices were not even a blip on the radar at Austin Energy’s call center. With an average of 10,000 calls a day, Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton said, “in the total volume of calls it didn’t show very much.”

Austin Energy oversees the call centers of six departments including Austin Water, Austin Resource Recovery, Public Works, Austin Energy, Austin Code and Watershed Protection. It also has Austin 311 in its call centers.

Tuttle echoed eerily similar concerns to those expressed by commissioners on the Water and Wastewater Commission when he asked how Austin Energy handled callbacks for customers after complaints about water bills began rolling in.

Overton explained that for the most part, the issues “were handled appropriately, on time and efficiently.” According to him, it was a “small number” of customers who were making a lot of noise about not receiving timely callbacks. Still, he said that in some cases the complaints were valid, and so “we believe that we have put some measures in place to significantly reduce” the problem. Now, the call queue is monitored by a single person to “mak(e) sure that we do those callbacks.”

Additionally, Overton explained that Austin Energy has added empathy training as well as ongoing supplemental refresher training for employees. According to him, the goal of this additional training is “starting from a place of communication with what you can do.” However, he said that regardless of the amount of training that call center employees receive, there is going to be the occasional unsatisfied customer.

“It’s a tough job,” he said, “because even though we owe it to our customers to give them … professional responses … we do have some customers that make it rough on them.”

Commissioner Marty Hopkins noted that “I called recently … (and) I had a very pleasant experience.” Tuttle too had kind words when describing a recent interaction, saying, “Overall it was a very good experience – for having my power go out.”

In spite of the efforts that Austin Energy is putting toward improving customer service in its call centers, Commissioner Stefan Wray pointed out that there may be a finite timeline for which it will have to dedicate resources to these efforts. “When will the human be taken out of the call center?” he wondered.

Overton explained that one of Austin Energy’s goals is to move transactional interactions onto a fully electronic platform that can be handled without human interaction.

Even with the promises that automation brings and the issues that Austin Energy has experienced with customer service in the past, Commissioner Karen Hadden urged the utility never to fully automate the system.

“Can I say, I really like to talk to a person. … I would encourage you to keep people,” she said.

Disclaimer: Marty Hopkins is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Austin Water Utility: AWU is the municipal utility that provides water service for the City of Austin.

Electric Utility Commission: The advisory body charged with oversight of Austin Energy, the City of Austin's municipally-owned electric utility.

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