Why public utility companies need to have media relations staff

It doesn’t matter if you are a public company, private company, non-profit or somewhere in-between; one thing is for certain – your customers are everything to your business. Now, one could say in the case of a public utility, since they have a monopoly, they don’t really need to care about their customers. And you might be right, which is why most public utility companies are still in business despite generally having satisfaction ratings that mirror the airlines and wireless companies.

Yet, what if I told you there was a benefit to having good customer service?

If your customers loved you… because…

  • You answered the phone quickly, and at all hours…
  • You replied to email in less than 24 hours…
  • You offered live chat…
  • You were empathetic, caring and good listeners when it comes to your customer’s lives and challenges
  • You participated in the community…
    • through events…
    • charities…
    • public education…
  • You cut people a break once in a while

So, if you did all this, wouldn’t your customers love you? Wouldn’t your image be sublime? When a public utility staff member says where they work, they’d be greeted with a smile rather than vitriol?

Still think it won’t get you anywhere?

What if I told you that having a strong brand as a public utility would probably go pretty far?

  • Enable you to sell/justify rate hikes (wouldn’t we all pay 1c more per gallon of water if service was superb when we needed it?
  • Enable your locality to pass better legislation because people respect you…
  • Get reelected?
  • Raise taxes?

Now, thanks to the goofs that run Pasco County Florida’s water utility, we’ve learned a good lesson here. Recently a customer of their’s contacted them when they received a bill for more than $3,000 (600,000 gallons of water), despite normally having a water bill of around $100. It seemed odd, so they did what anyone would do – they called the utility company to see what the issue was. But Pasco said the bill was correct and the customer would have to pay it. Pasco suggested to the customer to check their plumbing for leaks. So, the residents paid the county $190 to check the meter and the county declared the meter was fine. The county said they could follow a payment plan.

Gee thanks. Pay $3,000 and by the way, you’ll probably owe us twice that next month, because that was just a partial bill for 19 days.

So the residents contacted Tampa News Channel 8 (a local NBC affiliate). I would have contacted an attorney myself, but hey, that’s me. The good people at News Channel 8 hired a plumber for an independent test. He determined that it was physically impossible for that much water to even pass through the pipes in that amount of time. And if by chance he was wrong, where the hell did all the water go? It surely would have flooded the house or the street and be noticed.

So the news channel contacted the utility and the utility would not comment. They contacted the county, and a county spokesperson, without really know what the hell he was talking about said if a faucet was left on, it’s possible 23 gallons of water an hour could have come out. But the bill shows 1,000+ gallons per hour over certain periods. He later called back and said he meant 23 gallons a minute. Here’s the real rub, the couple wasn’t occupying the property, and the water usage is now back to normal.  Here’s were customer service and media relations come into play. A better response would have been,

“We agree that the bill is unusually high. There are a number of things that could result in a bill like this, so we are working with the customer to investigate whether it was an error in our billing system, our meters, or if in fact, the homeowner has a plumbing issue that needs remediation. We hope that together, we’ll be able to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”

How hard would that have been? How hard would it be to help this customer? Would a little empathy and assistance gone a long way? Yes. Now, many of the 4 million plus residents of the Tampa Bay region think negatively of Pasco County and it’s public utilities commission. That could have been avoided very easily.

Some times people are just jackasses. I’m not why people think its better to be a jackass than helpful and compassionate. One might say it’s easier to be a jackass, but I don’t buy that argument.

Oh, and by the way, all of Tampa Bay’s utility companies are this incompetent. This is not new. Maybe I’ll write about how Tampa Electric cut my power because I hadn’t paid a $700 deposit, even though I provided physical evidence I had.

Sometimes I feel like Rick Moranis in Space Balls… I’m surround by assholes. At least now I know why people want to privatize utilities.

UPDATE 10-1-2014: I just learned that Pasco County’s inspector general is now investigating the matter further… because of numerous complaints received across the county. Sounds like this is just the beginning of a big PR mess.


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