Over the past few months, the Detroit water system customer service issues have generated a massive amount of external publicity and pressure. These pressures have caused the utility to temporarily cease turn-offs for non-payment, threatening the financial viability of the utility. In addition, the city has moved management of the utility to the mayor’s office – who must now manage an operational situation fraught with political and customer service landmines. These reactions are great examples of the blind spots built into the current water utility business model. Unless utility owners correct these inherent barriers to success, they will continue to repeat their mistakes.
Customer service in most utilities has traditionally been treated as a necessary evil to the “real” job of the organization: managing the assets to deliver clean water. Asset management programs are managed with objective and quantifiable analysis – assets are tangible objects without feelings, and problem management is based on empirical results. Asset management processes and solutions scale through utility-wide standardization – assets can be treated the same without distinct agendas and personalities. Assets are well-managed through the integrated plan, build, and run-cycle familiar to all utility executives.
Customer service operations deal with people on both ends of this process (employees and customers). With very few assets to manage, they often get ignored from a return on investment perspective. These differences create barriers to success as utilities attempt to treat customer services in the same way they do assets. As attention wanders from the unique customer service environment, many utilities fall into the trap of ignoring the “plan” and “build” stages of operations and turn to the “run” stage.
Customer operations are continually reacting to unique and individual customer demands, compounded by the wide array of possible solutions and alternatives. In Detroit’s case, their standardized revenue protection program is applied across a wide range of customer situations. In a “run” mode, it is not surprising the accumulation of individual situations has eclipsed the standard solution and turned into a political nightmare. In typical “run” only ode, the utility has transferred the responsibility for these services to a new manager (the mayor). Without paying attention to the root cause of these issues, placing a new leader in a broken process will in fact also break the new leader – keep an eye out for the next set of issues to impact Detroit as the mayor gets involved with the short-term issues while the inherent barriers continue to resist changes and success.