Interview Meg Neafsey

Shawn Siegel

Q&A: Customer Service in the Public Utility Sector
Meg Neafsey is a VP of Customer Service at American Water, a utility that handles well over $2 billion of revenue. An expert on business processes and customer service.

Customer Management IQ: What are the biggest challenges of reducing employee turnover your call center?

Meg Neafsey: The biggest challenges of reducing employee turnover in call centers are finding the best recruits and offering a worthwhile career path.
To find the best recruits we utilize local recruiting channels to identify potential candidates. We have a well-defined candidate profile and predictive testing tools to support identification of the candidates most likely to be successful in our environment. We also work with local temporary agencies/vendors to keep the candidate pipeline full to help reduce cycle time for filling positions.

In order to offer employees a worthwhile career path and ensure the long term viability of the staff, we utilize a talent review process to identify key talent and then work to create development plans to help the individuals develop skills/knowledge/experience for future roles. We also utilize special assignments and/or projects to continually challenge individuals to grow within their current roles. Finally, we give our internal candidates preferential treatment "key candidate" status when filling positions before seeking external candidates.

Customer Management IQ: How do you go about keeping employees engaged and excited about their work?

Meg Neafsey: American Water uses a strategic effort and good communications to ensure that all department projects and activities support the overall corporate mission, vision and values and that all employees are engaged in the effort to achieve them. Each year, our company’s executive leadership team communicates its targets. Using these, our CSC management team works to develop an action plan that will ensure we meet standards set for customer satisfaction, quality, first contact resolution, and other performance measures. To make sure all employees understand and support the targets, we hold short overview meetings and ask for employees’ input and support in brainstorming ways to achieve success in key areas. This process has helped us to identify areas of opportunity for improvement and has helped employees engage in the process of bringing value to our customers.

The management team works together and with their teams to make sure they are able to look at projects and opportunities to assess their real value to American Water and our customers. We work hard to make sure we are doing the right things and that we are doing them well, all while trying to make our center a fun environment.

Transparent open communications, collaboratively seeking input and ideas, balanced feedback recognition and celebration of successes as they are truly team achievements are important to keeping employees engaged.

Our employees are empowered to make decisions, encouraged to ask questions and challenge the process. For example, customer service representatives were involved in determining methods for awarding overtime. They helped develop the policies for swapping of overtime, volunteering for overtime, and a policy change that includes rest periods. This created mechanisms for them to make decisions on their own work-life balance. By working together we were able to identify and implement practices that help support individual needs.
Our employees enjoy and feel very engaged when our supervisors create healthy and fun performance competitions. Our CSRs hold themselves to high standards and like to showcase what they can accomplish as a team. We take time to celebrate our successes. Individual, team and overall center recognition is frequent. We find that a often a simple "thank you" for a job well done goes a long way to keeping employees engaged and excited about their work.

Customer Management IQ: How does superior customer service directly impact your company’s bottom line?

Meg Neafsey: It is important that a business have effective and pro-active customer service personnel and policies. Good customer service is listening to the needs and wants of the customer and striving to meet requests in an efficient and professional manner. Whether the service is offered in person, via
email or over the telephone, a customer service representative must also help a customer identify needs that they might not have considered and anticipate possible future needs for the customer.
Keeping customers satisfied with their service, and getting them to tell others about the great service they received will reflect well on the company, whereas a company’s poor customer service policies and practices can damage the reputation of the company. In the utility business, this can be reflected in rate case proceedings and other venues that impact earnings and growth.
If a customer feels that his needs are not being addressed or that the business representative is more concerned with what he feels the customer’s needs are than what the customer is requesting, the customer is less likely to be satisfied with the service. This will have an immediate impact on the bottom line. When customers are unsatisfied with the service a company offers, they will tell others or lodge complaints. Dissatisfied customers might go as far as to complain to senior management, local officials, and in some cases regulatory agencies about their negative experience. Complaints can take
the company time, resources and effort to resolve, and can also lead to unfavorable financial decisions by regulators.

When offering customer service, the offer must be genuine. Customer service representatives must remember that without customers, the business would not exist, therefore neither would their jobs. Customer service staff must remain polite and professional, even when faced with an angry or rude customer. Representatives must acknowledge the customer’s needs and find a way to provide the needed information or resolve their concern. When a business is looking for customer service representatives, it is in their best interest to hire people who have empathy and the ability to listen along with adequate customer service and technical skills.

Superior customer service can also be programs and practices that eliminate the need for customers to speak with company representatives at all. For example, In January of 2011 American Water’s Customer Service Center embarked on an initiative to create strategic value through near real time integration of payment receipt information with pending service orders for disconnection for non- payment. This work enabled customer payments to be processed in "near" real time. That is, customer payments submitted at authorized payment vendor locations throughout the American Water service
areas are reported to us at least every hour If the payment is made on a customer account that shows a pending service order for a non-pay shut off and the payment amount is sufficient to stop the shut off, the service order is automatically cancelled and deleted from the field service mobile work order application. This is a considerable improvement in customer service and efficiency as American Water is now doing fewer shut offs in the field and there is less chance that customers are shut off between the time the payment is made and it is received and processed in our system.

This initiative was taken a step farther to capture additional efficiencies by reducing call volume related to payments made. In the past, since payment processing was only daily, we informed customers that they needed to call us back with a receipt number for payments made through the payment vendors so that a CSR could manually cancel the disconnect for non-payment order in the system so that it would not get worked before the payment posted in the system. Since Near Real Time Payment Processing was implemented this now occurs automatically with such frequency throughout the day, it is no longer necessary for customers to call the CSC to report a payment receipt number in most cases.

In 2011 this work resulted in automatic cancellation of most non-payment disconnect service orders within an hour of payment receipt. This resulted in avoidance of service interruption to customers, reduction of call volume related to the shut off, and improved allocation of resources related to the service disconnection and reconnection. This results in a better customer experience by avoiding disconnection of service once payment is made through significant reduction in lag between the time payments are made and coordinated with the field work order system. Customer experience is also improved by eliminating the need to call us back with a receipt once payment is made and enabling most to address the pending shut off situation with just one transaction.

Customer Management IQ: How have new technologies transformed call centers over the last 5 years?

Meg Neafsey: While some call centers are simply maintaining status quo with traditional equipment and
strategies, many companies have increased efficiency and customer satisfaction through implementation of new technologies. Call Center Workforce Optimization helps allocate the number of agents required to handle a workload and helps reduce cost by accurately predicting contact center volume. It has helped companies improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their customer interactions. Over the last 5 years many companies have developed solutions that enable customer interactions across new channels such as IVR, web self-service, e-mail and chat that improve business productivity and customer experience.

More and more companies are also outsourcing all or part of their customer service. Call center outsourcing solutions can sometimes enable companies to deliver exceptional customer experiences, decrease costs and increase revenues, and allow them to focus more resources on core activities.

Customer Management IQ: What will the call center of the future look like?

Meg Neafsey: In the coming years customers will determine when, who, and how they want to contact or interact with an organization. With customers having more communications options than ever, contact centers will need to leverage the emerging channels of social, mobile and advanced self-service.