311 director promises water customers better service

New ‘escalation team’ addresses numerous complaints

by Frank DeLoache

After increasing complaints about the inability of city 311 operators to handle questions about water bills, 311 officials have created a team of operators with special utility training – and more information – to better respond to angry customers.

The city’s customer service agency launched the so-called escalation team – or e-team – on Oct. 18, and e-team operators resolved 96.1 percent of the 615 calls they handled through Saturday, Nov. 6, 311 Director Kimberly Laney said this week.

Utility customers throughout the county say changes at the city’s customer service center can’t come soon enough.

At a public meeting last week to talk about revising water rates, most residents wanted to talk about unresolved questions about their bills and the terrible service they received when they called 311.

“You’re basically operating an extortion operation,” Jerry Doyle, president of the Giverny Homeowners Association, told utility officials. Ten of 96 residents in the community have complained to the association board about unexplained spikes in their water-sewer bills, including one bill of $600, Doyle said. But 311 operators invariably tell homeowners they have a leak and threaten to cut off their water service if they don’t pay the bill, he said.

“We’re very concerned. We’re going to talk to other communities, and we’re going to fight this until you fix it. How many people are being billed $300 to $400 to $600 a month, and you can’t prove a leak?”

In a Nov. 3 e-mail to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Director Barry Gullet, Jim Duke, head of the Peninsula Property Owners Association in Cornelius, recounted how a Peninsula couple began calling 311 on Oct. 6 to question a bill that covered 51 days. With the bill covering almost two months, the homeowner had to pay the utility’s highest rate for more water.

On the first call, a 311 operator said someone would call the homeowner within 48 hours. He got no call and called again on Oct. 13 ­– a week later. After two more discussions with officials at 311, the customer service center referred the homeowner to a utility department supervisor. The homeowner said he called that supervisor on Oct. 20, 25 and 28 and never got a response.

“No customer should be blown off like this by customer service staff, and no customers should be overcharged in such a way,” Duke wrote to Gullet.

Duke also serves on a utility stakeholder panel that’s helping formulate water rates. “Whatever software ‘adjustments’ your folks are making, a little easy math shows that it still overcharges customers.”

Laney, the 311 director, said changes at her agency are designed to address just those sorts of problems, and she believes the fixes are working.

The e-team operators have access to customer records that 311 operators did not have before, Laney said, and they can take much longer on individual calls to review that customer’s service history. The e-team members aim to avoid transferring a customer to anyone else, including the utility staff, to avoid bouncing homeowners to different people and “playing phone tag with customers.”

So far, the e-team operators have reported most customers are unhappy with the results of the utility’s investigation of a high bill, Laney said. The operators try to review the findings of the investigation and the customer history.

E-team operators have eliminated a backlog of about 100 customers who were waiting on return calls from 311, Laney said. If e-team operators can handle a customer’s question, that frees the utility staff to focus more on improving service.

All calls to 311 are recorded, and Laney encourages any customer who feels threatened or dissatisfied with the response or attitude of a 311 operator to ask immediately for a supervisor. 311 supervisors will review the recordings of those calls and “coach” operators on improvements.

The e-team has four trained operators and a supervisor, and while the unit is still new, a utility official is assigned to the team to help them better respond to customers’ questions. Studies of calls to 311 show most utility customers still call Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and e-team members are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Laney said.

City officials also are trying to make the utility’s website “more customer focused,” according to Kim McMillan, director of corporate communications for the city. But she suggested customers with questions go to www.charmeck.org and click on “Citizen Service” at the top of the page. Then, at right side of the service page, click on “I want to …” The second topic, under “report a pothole,” is “ask about my water bill.”

311 gets new director

City administrators have selected Janice Quintana, director of the Office of Unified Communications in Washington, D.C., as the new director of CharMeck 311, the city’s customer service agency. Quintana replaces Kimberly Laney, who served for two years, managing a restructuring of 31.

CharMeck 311 has a $7.3 million budget and a staff of 136 that handles 1.7 million calls a year.

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