Monday, December 12, 2011
San Diego’s Public Utilities Department is hiring a dozen temporary customer service representatives, adding dozens of phone lines, opening 25 walk-in payment centers and installing a pay-by-phone with credit card option in hopes of providing relief to water customers still frustrated with its new billing system.
City officials continue to maintain that the system, launched in July, is working well, and that customers just need help adapting to something new. They said some of the steps they’re taking to improve customer service are part of the system upgrade and not a response to complaints.
However, since Investigative Newsource, a journalism nonprofit, first reported about the water billing problems in October, dozens of frustrated customers, many desperate to resolve their issues, posted comments or emailed a reporter for help.
Customers reported being overbilled, double-billed or not billed. Some have said they couldn’t establish online accounts with the new system, and others said they paid on time via the online system, and have email confirmation to prove it, but their water was shut off anyway. When they tried to call to clear things up, the lines were jammed.
Mike Vogl, deputy director of customer support at the Public Utilities Department and project director for the new billing system, said, “There is definitely an issue, but the issue is not that the system is performing improperly … The issue is that, since we rolled out the new system, it is not yet as quick and easy for our front line call center agents to use.”
Vogl said temporary employees should have a significant impact on the backlog of calls within 60 days. The payment locations and phone payment option, which Vogl said are part of the system upgrade, could be up and running within 90 days.
In response to Newsource’s information requests, the city estimated overtime and new phone line costs related to issues with the new billing system could be as high as a quarter-million dollars. The approximation does not include the cost of the temporary call center employees. Customers who use the new pay-by-phone option or the walk-in payment centers will pay a fee to cover those costs.
The walk-in payment centers will be the same or similar to those available for payment of SDG&E bills, Vogl said. Managers are still finalizing locations, which will include some Wal-Mart stores. Information will be available at www.sandiego.gov/publicutilities/ and by calling the customer service call center for recorded information once the locations are open for business.
Some customers, however, don’t believe caller backlog is the problem.
Some told Newsource that the new system, which required them to re-enter bank account information, repeatedly rejected their user names or passwords and gave them the wrong security questions or did not record their bank account information properly.
“I was sorry to hear the department spokesman blame much of the problem on us ignorant users,” said Carmel Valley customer Ken Ravazzolo, whose payment didn’t register in the new system. “I guess my skills as a software developer and user interface designer aren't what they used to be. I had a truly horrible time dealing with this issue and came close to having our water shut off twice.”
Shannon Nugent, a Carmel Valley attorney, said she received a warning in October that her water was about to be shut off for non-payment, even though she’d been making payments on time and her bills showed her as current.
After hours trying to reach the city, and two customer service representatives telling her she was current, a third figured out that a payment was lost in the conversion to the new billing system and not applied to her account. “I said to her, ‘We will not get our water shut off, right?’ She swore up and down my water wouldn’t get shut off. At most a week later, the water gets shut off.”
That was Oct. 28, the day before Nugent and her husband, Randy Rechs, were hosting a 5K run and fundraiser for the Hoyt Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits disabled youth. It’s named for Dick and Rick Hoyt, the famous father and his disabled son who have completed numerous marathons and Ironman races together.
Runners need a bathroom at the start of a race. Nugent and Rechs were panicked. They frantically called the city and finally got through. Water service was restored the same day.
“I would say it was a nightmare but that’s probably overstating,” Nugent said. “It was a pain.
If you count all the times I called them and all the different people I talked to and ultimately my water still got shutoff it just blows my mind how it could be so confusing for them.”
In response to a public records request by Newsource, city officials said they are not able to say how many customer complaints or water shutoffs related directly to the launch of the new system in July. “We do not categorize complaints in this manner,” the city said.
Nor could the officials say precisely say how much overtime has been paid to 24 employees specifically for the purpose of handling thousands of calls and emails from angry customers. Vogl said he could not distinguish between overtime related to billing-system problems and other reasons.
The city provided this information to Investigative Newsource:
The Public Utilities Department’s overtime costs between July 1, when the new system went live, to Oct. 28, are $232,446, almost double the overtime paid in all of FY 2011, which ended June 30. The department did not track the reason for overtime, so that figure might include compensation to employees working late to handle issues related to the power outage in September, Vogl said.
Vogl said he could not predict the cost of temporary employees and declined to disclose their hourly pay rate since call center employees will soon be bidding against the private sector to win the customer service contract. Revealing pay would be a competitive disadvantage, Vogl said.
After the new system was launched, the department received 19,623 emails from July to October, versus about 2,000 during the same period a year earlier. The city received 7,300 emails from customers in August alone – the month after the launch -- compared to 500 in June, the month before launch. That number dropped to 4,700 in October, and city officials see that as a sign that more people were getting through on the phone and didn’t have to resort to email.
“That tells us we’re moving in the right direction,” Vogl said.
Employees reported 471 problems with the new billing system to project managers between July 1 and Oct. 28. So-called “tickets” range from low-priority glitches to more urgent issues like overbilling. Of those tickets, 117 remain unresolved.
The department tracks complaints when they come from outside its call center, such as through a City Council member’s office. There were 378 such calls from July 1 through Oct. 31, versus 261 during the same period in 2010.
The city said the number of water shutoffs for failure to pay has declined this year versus last. There were 8,175 shutofffs from July to October of 2010 versus 7,173 during the same months this year.
Vogl surmised that shutoffs were down because the city briefly stopped cutting service in August in response to complaints. That gave some cash-strapped ratepayers extra time to come up with the money to pay their water bills and avoid a shutoff that otherwise would have occurred. The August shutoffs were 387 compared to 1,799 a year ago.
The number of calls handled by the department’s call center was down significantly from July to September versus the same period in 2010, from 102,762 to 68,348. Customers have said that the overloaded system hangs up on them and there is no way to measure those attempts. City officials said that fewer calls get through because once connected, calls take longer.
A year ago it took 1:54 minutes to reach a customer service representative and the call took a little less than 4 minutes to resolve the issue. This year, from July through October, it took 12 minutes 15 seconds to get someone on the phone, and then about 6.5 minutes on the line to fix the problem.
The Public Utilities Department’s new $24 million billing system is part of a citywide upgrade to replace an antiquated mainframe with software that integrates all city departments. The overall project, begun in 2007, cost $52 million – $16 million over budget and more than a year behind schedule.
Problems continue and it’s getting more expensive to maintain the system. The city said it spent $4.4 million in FY 2011 versus $2.3 million in FY 2010 for maintenance contracts and personnel costs.
To water and sewer customers having a difficult time, Vogl says this: “If you are having problems getting through to our agents, please be patient. Email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need to reach us by phone, try to avoid calling on Monday or Friday. These are our highest volume days for calls. In most cases, you will get in and helped faster if you call Tuesday-Thursday.
“We are really sorry for the difficulty our customers are having when they need to get a hold of us and really appreciate their support and patience as we work through this challenge.”