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Utility Operations, Engineering and Customer Care Reorganization Update
Posted: February 27, 2017

 
            City Manager Teresa Wilson Announces Utility Operations, Engineering and Customer Care Reorganization Update
 
City Manager Teresa Wilson announced today that organizational changes have been moving forward for the City of Columbia’s Department of Utility Operations, Department of Engineering and the Customer Care and Field Services Division.  During December 2016, Wilson shared with City Council and City staff that an assessment of all operations was underway and she would continue to work internally to identify various ways to improve service delivery and departmental efficiencies and also initiate best practices.  Effective January 1, 2017, a new organizational structure became official on a citywide basis, which included changes in the Department of Utility Operations, the Department of Engineering and the Customer Care and Field Services Division.
 
With the launch of Envision Columbia, the City’s 2036 Vision Statement, City Council and City staff committed to lead the way in innovative and high quality municipal services. This is one of the seven focus areas of the new vision and the internal work plan.  Improvement efforts that began with the wastewater system through the Clean Water 2020 program are expanding to the City’s drinking water, engineering, customer service and other utility support groups.
“We have started the process, but our work will continue.  I am proud of the teamwork displayed internally and I am humbled by the commitment of our staff to work diligently on improving our operations.  The provision of water and sewer services is an integral part of the future growth and development of our city. Specifically, water quality is a primary focus for all of our customers.  By working together, we will elevate our services and operations in order to prepare our community for future expansion and an enhanced quality of life,”  Wilson stated.
Below are highlights of some of the improvement efforts that will impact water and sewer customers. While some improvements are still in the development phase, other changes have already taken place that are improving our systems and services. As this plan moves forward, City staff will continue to focus on providing high quality municipal services, efficiently, effectively, and responsively.


Customer Response
Effort Impact on Customers
Escalated Issue Team: Not all customer issues are created equal; some are more complex and require more experience and insight to work through with a customer. Our Customer Care and Meter Reading groups are adding staff who will focus on customers with complex issues.
  • A Customer Advocate will be assigned to a customer who needs extra assistance and will be the point of contact for that customer throughout the case.
  • The Meter Maintenance Task Force will be a team of seasoned meter maintenance staff whose primary responsibility will be to fully investigate any meter issues associated with these complex cases. These staff will also be able to educate customers on how meters work and how to identify issues on their property that could contribute to water billing issues.
Planned: Fiscal Year 2017-2018
Dedicated Customer Advocate staff will be the point of contact for customers with complex issues and will work with them throughout the resolution process.
Seasoned Meter Maintenance Task Force staff will troubleshoot complex water usage or metering issues. Staff can also provide insight in identifying problems on the property that may be contributing to the issues the customer is facing.
Customer Advocate and Meter Maintenance Task Force staff can educate the customer throughout the process in identifying the causes contributing to the water issues and in how to prevent them in the future.
Improved Target Response Time for Rereads: Staff is looking at the process when a customer calls in to dispute a bill and request a reread. The goal is to identify where process improvements and additional resources can reduce response times. Staff anticipates having an improved response time goal, with a plan to meet that goal, by Summer 2017.
Examining Process Started: July 2016
Target Improvement Plan & Goal: Summer 2017
This will reduce the amount of time it takes for a meter reread when a customer disputes a bill.
Customer Care & Field Services Staff Training: Customer Care and Field Services staff will receive training to:
  • Expand their knowledge of City services and available City assistance program
  • Improve their ability to listen to the customer and meet their needs within the capabilities of City policies
  • Improve their ability to explain what steps a customer can expect City staff to follow if an issue cannot be immediately resolved
  • Enhance their ability to educate the customer on tips to prevent high use bills
  • Convey the care and respect owed to our customers
Customer Care Training: June-December 2016
Field Services Training Start: March 2017
More knowledgeable and courteous customer service staff.
Enhanced Citizen Portals: The City will be expanding its online portals. Customers will be able to:
  • Use mobile devices to report concerns with the option to attach pictures and submit location information
  • Track the status of requests through automated work order management
  • Chat with Customer Care Representatives from their website or mobile device
  • Pay their bill with their mobile device
Planned: Fiscal Year 2017-2018
More convenient reporting options for customers.
 
Meter Reading Auditing Measures
Effort Impact on Customers
Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and High Use Alerts:  The City is planning to convert its meter system to an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). All analog meters will be replaced with digital meters that collect and transmit real-time water use data to the billing network. The City plans to replace all current meters with AMI meters and set up the data transmission network starting in a phased installation over the next 3-5 years. Work is planned to start in Fiscal Year 2017-2018.
Often, the first indication that a customer has a plumbing issue is a high water bill. Because the AMI system will collect water use data in real-time and transmits that data back to the network, customers will be able to receive usage alerts. This should allow customers to be notified that they may have a plumbing problem as early as the same day the problem starts.
Pre-AMI High Use Notification: Since AMI will take several years to be installed system-wide, not every customer will have immediate access to the real-time alert option. The City is also looking into ways that meter readers could be alerted of a customer’s high use as they take a reading. The goal is to have a means to alert customers of high use before they receive their bill.
AMI Feasibility Started: 2016 – ONGOING EFFORT
AMI Implementation Beginning: Fiscal Year 2017-2018 (pending Council approval); 3-5 Year Phased Installation
Start of Early Notification Planning: February 2017
AMI and High Use Alerts: Customers will know in real time when they have an issue with their water usage, allowing them to make repairs with minimal wasted water.
Pre-AMI High Use Notification: The City will have a way to notify customers of higher than normal use before the customer receives a bill. This will allow them to begin looking for issues with their system or changing water use habits sooner than they might be notified in waiting for their bill.
 
Meter Reading Routes: Meter route protocols have changed so no meter reader will read the same route three months in a row.
Started: July 2016
This will reduce opportunity for skipped reads to go unnoticed. Customers should see fewer estimated bills.
Weekly Random Meter Route Recheck: A different meter reading route will be randomly selected to be rechecked by staff from a different section (meter maintenance) each week. At least ¾ of the route will be re-read. If discrepancies above a certain level are found, a third staff member will confirm the correct amount.
Started: July 2016
Over-time, staff expect to see a reduction in skipped readings and misreads. Customers should see fewer estimated bills.
Real Life Impact Example: Staff recently caught two incorrect reads through the auditing process and corrected the usage before the bills were sent to the customers.
Consolidated Skipped Meter Report: Skipped reads are now reported in a consolidated report in addition to a master list of individual accounts. The consolidated report lets staff identify which categories cause the most skips.
Started: December 2016
Staff can justify improvements that reduce skips by focusing on the most common causes. Customers should see fewer estimated bills.
Real Life Impact Example: A high level of “Cannot locate” causes led staff emphasize locating and marking previously hidden meters. Residents may have noticed an increase in blue marks along the right-of-way which are part of this marking effort.
 
Departmental Reorganization
Effort Impact on Customers
Gap Analysis: Working with an outside agency to identify areas department-wide where processes could be improved both in quality of service delivered and in efficiency.
The Gap Analysis started as an initiative of the Clean Water 2020 program. In 2016, it was expanded to include all of the Department of Utilities & Engineering. It continues through the reorganization of the Department of Engineering and the Department of Utility Operations.
Capital Improvement Project planning will use more data-driven approaches using customer complaint data, asset age, and other performance indicators to prioritize projects.
Started: 2016 – ONGOING EFFORT
Vision: A high quality product with great customer service.
Values: Providing a level of service as if we have direct competition in our service area.
Over time, customers will see an improvement in service. 
Some improvements are already underway as outlined below.
Reorganization: As part of the Gap Analysis, the Department of Utilities & Engineering and Customer Care were reorganized to bring all water and sewer related services, including billing, under one Assistant City Manager. The Assistant City Manager will oversee the:
  • Customer Care and Field Services Division
    • Billing, meter reading, customer service
  • Department of Engineering
    • Capital Improvement management, floodplain and storm water management, asset management, strategic planning
  • Department of Utility Operations
    • Water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plant, water system, and wastewater system operations and maintenance; regulatory compliance oversight
Assistant City Manager Job Posting Closing: February 28, 2017
Reorganization Planning Started: Summer 2016
Effective Date: January 1, 2017
Contacts: Customer contacts should not change. Customers can still call 803-545-3300 to report concerns or ask billing questions.
Customer Care and Field Services Reorganization: This elevates customer concern and field service functions higher in the executive management chain for more immediate review and resolution of issues.
Creation of Department of Engineering and Department of Utility Operations: This delineates roles and responsibilities of the Directors of these departments for a more streamlined workload and to achieve efficiencies. Over time, customers will see an improvement in service.
Customer Service Process Review: The City will be looking at the entire billing cycle, from the customer’s water use to final bill payment, and identifying ways to improve processes. We will review:
  • Account Management                          ● Billing
  • Field Services                                             ● Payment
  • Meter Data Management                  ● Credit and Collections
The new Assistant City Manager will be able to use this review and data to implement additional changes and improvements.
Review Planning: Underway
Review to Start: Spring 2017
This will result in business practice improvements that will improve customer service.
Customer Satisfaction Strategy: Improving overall customer satisfaction levels is one goal of the department-wide Gap Analysis.
Redesign of  Strategy Started: December 2016
Over time, customers will see an improvement in service and improved responsiveness to billing and water quality inquiries.
 
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