News Release_New Utility Billing Call Center_1+15+2019

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January 15, 2019
NEWS CONTACT
Karen Santos, Communications
479.784.2230 / karen.santos@fortsmithar.gov
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
NEW CALL CENTER LAUNCHES TO ADDRESS
CUSTOMERS’ UTILITY BILLING ISSUES
 
(January 15, 2019, Fort Smith, AR) — Beginning 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, January 15, residents using the telephone to get help with their utility bill reached one of six newly-reassigned Utility Department staff members specially-trained to address specific issues arising now after December’s deployment of a new, citywide accounting and billing system. The call center will be open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., to address customers’ needs.
 
Rather than calling, though, if possible, customers with questions, concerns or needing personal assistance are asked to email mynewbill@fortsmithar.gov. This dedicated email address allows an even larger number of staff to address the volume of customer needs and requests, responding individually, with more time and other flexibility as they fulfill other of their job duties.
 
For those who do call Utility Billing (784-2262), as of today, callers are routed to the expanded staff in the new call center. There are more dedicated phone lines, and staff are focused squarely on answering phone inquiries and meeting customers’ needs related to their new utility bills. If all six new call center operators are busy, overflow calls will spill over to the staff who normally answer utility customer calls and who have been hard-pressed to handle the recent volume and demand while serving the large number of customers who walk in, in person, to be served at the department’s customer windows on Garrison Avenue.
 
“About half our customers—so we’re talking 17,000 people or more—pay their water bill in person, the old-fashioned way,” said Finance Director Jennifer Walker. “We’ve had six to 10 staff, at any given time, struggling to meet the demands of a sharp and constant call volume and continuous flow of foot traffic, customers face-to-face, while processing mail and other payments, and everything else. It’s been difficult,” she said.
 
New call center staff can handle any utility customer request but are specially trained to address current recurring customer demands. These fall into four main “buckets:”
  1. Problems with successfully setting up an online payment account
  2. Questions and concerns about their water bill
  3. Questions about payment options
  4. Service requests
 
Dealing with customers’ issues over the last several weeks, here’s the latest information and direction from staff dealing directly with customers’ and their new utility bills:
 
  • As of today, every one of the City’s approximately 35,000 customers has been mailed a bill.
 
ð To the remaining few customers who have not yet received their new water bill: If you do not get your bill by Monday, January 21's mail, please contact Utility Billing by emailing mynewbill@fortsmithar.gov or calling 784-2262. (Please make sure to check your January 21 mail first, though.)
 
  • Look at your bill. If your bill indicates it is to be paid by automatic draft and you don’t want that to happen, you should email Utility Billing immediately at mynewbill@fortsmithar.gov or call 784-2262.
 
Overlapping the citywide billing software switchover, the Utility Department has long been in the process of replacing hardware—old, aging water meters—in various neighborhoods. The old, outdated meters did not always measure accurately the water used. The new meters are manufactured, calibrated, and tested so they read the exact amount of water usage. Customers surprised by bills that may be significantly different from what they’re used to also have flooded customer service lines, windows, and other service channels.
 
No matter the issue, City Administration and staff are committed to working in partnership with customers to resolve all problems, concerns, and questions.
 
“We know there have been some growing pains as we’ve moved to update both our hardware and software,” said City Administrator Carl E. Geffken, “We sincerely apologize for the problems and appreciate people working with us as we work through this.”
 
“Residents all tried to set up their new accounts at once on the first day the new system was available,” Geffken said, reflecting on the spike in customer service demand. “We’re not sure why that was, but as people encountered difficulty or had questions, they turned to the phones—so many, all at once, that they crashed our telephone provider’s lines a number of times,” he said.
 
“Of course, customers calling had no way of knowing what was going on—they just knew they couldn’t get an answer or got a recording. That’s maddening! Enormously frustrating! Believe me, it was also frustrating and aggravating for City staff. We leaned on our phone service provider, and now we’ve expanded the number of lines. We think this new call center will help, allowing us to resolve customer issues faster, relieving everyone’s frustration,” Geffken said.
 
Initial system deployment difficulties have been worked out, Geffken said. The main problem area remaining now is responding to the hundreds of individual requests for assistance regarding setting up a new payment option or answering individual account questions regarding a customer’s bill.
 
SETTING UP ONLINE PAYMENT
The majority of customers calling and emailing the City have sought individual assistance to help with their account information. To set up online payment, either directly with the city or at the customer’s own financial institution, they must have and must correctly input customer-identifying information about their utility account. The main questions being put to City staff are:
  • What is my account number?
  • What is the specific name on my account?
 
Many customers who had signed up for paperless billing and/or auto-pay, either directly with the City or at their financial institution, said they never saw their bill, didn’t know how to access their e-bill, and kept no available records. So, they said, they had no idea what their account info was and no way to get it.
 
For each personalized inquiry like this—and there have been thousands—City staff have worked individually with the customer, taking their name and address, and looking up the person’s account information for them, replying to the customer’s email to mynewbill@fortsmithar.gov or directly over the phone.
 
EXACT NAME MATCH
Initially, many customers setting up an online account with the City or arranging other automatic draft encountered difficulty when required to provide their name exactly as it appears on their account. Due to the trouble hundreds of customers had with that, our team adjusted the software, dropping the “exact name match” requirement, switching instead to require only the customer/account numbers to match perfectly.
 
EXACT NUMBER
Careful attention also is required when inputting customer and account number fields—the order is reversed and not all digits, such as a series of zeros, are needed and aren’t accepted. Hundreds of customers have needed individual staff assistance to retrieve their customer/account numbers and input the number fields correctly, as instructed.
 
QUESTIONS ABOUT WATER BILL
Also, for weeks now—since planned changes were announced in mid-late November—customers have flooded phone lines asking questions such as:
  • When will I receive my water bill?
  • Why have I not received my bill?
  • Why is my most recent bill higher than normal?
  • Will my water be shut off because I haven’t received a bill?
 
Each of the City’s approximately 35,000 utility customers received a letter and sample bill in the mail in late November, seeking to explain what customers could expect as the City switched over to a new accounting system and making clear that no customer’s water would be shut off, nor would anyone be assessed a penalty for late payment associated with the switchover. Regardless, social media misinformation and rumors have fueled some customers’ fears, leading them to call or email the City with concerns about late payment, penalties or loss of service.
 
Again, unequivocally, despite social media disinformation and dead-wrong rumors, no one’s water has been shut off, nor have any penalties been levied to date.
 
 
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Contact:
Karen Santos, Communications
(479) 784-2230