We've been surprised and pleased with how well our customers have handled the changes this year. And I'm certain these enhancements to our online options have played a big role in that.
Harnessing the Power of GIS to Improve Customer Service
The COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the way businesses and organizations operate and serve their customers, and utility districts are no exception. White House Utility District (WHUD), Tennessee's largest water and wastewater provider in terms of geographic area served, is a case in point.
In March 2020, for the first time in its history of service, WHUD closed its lobby to customers and sent nearly two dozen employees home to work remotely. Understanding the vitality of clean and reliable water, especially during a pandemic, WHUD adopted various new practices to help customers who were financially burdened by the pandemic and also to encourage all to use phone and online payment options. The goal of these and many other changes was simple: to help reduce the spread of the virus and protect employees and customers.
Since these changes have been in place, WHUD has not just maintained service to its customers but has also improved the way it serves and interacts with its customers. Two key developments have played a big role by giving customers quick and easy access to tools and information from anywhere, at any time. The first, an online Customer Problem Reporter, allows customers to quickly notify the district of any issues they are experiencing with their service. The second, an all-inclusive Customer Service Hub, gives customers access to a plethora of online tools, including the Customer Problem Reporter, and others such as a leak adjustment form, bank auto draft enrollment, and forms to start and stop service. Both are products of the district's partnership with Esri and the expansive suite of GIS tools that guide WHUD's day-to-day work. And while neither was developed in response to the pandemic, both have proven their value tenfold in enabling WHUD to keep customers informed, engaged, and satisfied with its service.
Building a Customer Problem Reporter
For years, WHUD has had 24/7 call monitoring. Customer calls received after normal business hours are fielded and managed by the district's on-call water treatment plant operators, in addition to their primary responsibility of operating the water treatment plant. In late 2019, prior to the coronavirus's presence in the US, WHUD began exploring the development of an online tool that would allow customers to quickly report issues and hopefully lighten the after-hours call volume for plant operators. And the solution came in Esri's Crowdsource Problem Reporter, an out-of-the-box yet customizable tool.
"This tool was perfect for what we were looking to accomplish," said Becky Brown, WHUD GIS administrator. "We were looking for a quickly deployable solution that was fairly customizable, user-friendly, and would give our customers the ability to report issues quickly anytime, from anywhere, and with any device. But we also wanted a tool that would allow us to monitor trends and track data. Before the problem reporter, we really didn't have a succinct way to measure customer-reported issues—things like the location of the issue, type of issue, and magnitude of reports."
After customizing the problem reporter to district needs, which included the build-out of commonly reported issues, the addition of a layer that shows current outages in the district, and a custom color scheme, WHUD added several other steps to the process to further improve communication with customers. Using ArcGIS GeoEvent Server, Brown created custom automated email notifications for each type of issue submitted, updating customers on its progress up to completion. In conjunction with the customer emails, internal emails were also configured to notify staff of reported problems.
As part of the out-of-the-box solution, a web mapping application for managing the reports was configured according to the district's needs. Internal users were provided a quick and easy way to manage and resolve reported issues. The tool is shared between customer service staff, who manage problems reported during business hours, and the water treatment plant operators, who were designated to triage problems reported after hours that were flagged as critical—this includes low or no water or flashing alarm lights. Prior to the problem reporter, the operators were inundated with all requests regardless of criticality. Any update to the process, or the resolution of the issue, also generates automated emails to the customers, which has helped increase communication and transparency with customers.
The final step of setting up the solution was the creation of two dashboards—one that tracks current submissions and another that tracks historical submissions. The former is permanently displayed on select computers, so the customer service team and the plant operators have their eyes on the Customer Problem Reporter 24/7. Conveniently, in the upper right corner of the dashboard, a red box alerts viewers of any new problems needing attention. The dashboard also allows district employees to track current progress or quickly see data such as how many reports have been submitted in a given time frame and geographic information about the reports. The dashboard links directly to the Customer Problem Reporter Manager, where employees can respond and manage the report. The historical dashboard allows the district to monitor and analyze trends across the district.
"Our goal was to make this system as easy for customers and as fail proof as possible for our employees," said Brown. "Before we launched the Customer Problem Reporter, customers had to email or call. On due dates, our customer call volume naturally increases, which can create longer wait times on the phone. This tool lets customers bypass the phone system and let us know immediately if they have an issue with their service. And the redundancy provided by the automated emails and dashboards helps hold our employees accountable and ensures that issues are handled in a timely manner."
Since the launch of the Customer Problem Reporter in February 2020, according to Google Analytics, the page has been viewed more than 3,700 times. Additionally, more than 400 reports have been submitted; of these, approximately half, or 51 percent, were resolved; 11.3 percent were canceled; 2.3 percent were flagged as already reported; 34.9 percent were completed; and 0.5 percent were in progress at the time this article was written. Prior to the Customer Problem Reporter, WHUD had limited ability to track issues as they were reported via phone or email, which is a great benefit of the tool.
"The Customer Problem Reporter has been a great tool for our customers and our employees," said Tammy Barlow, WHUD office manager. "While we are still relying on anecdotal information to gauge usage and impact, we are really pleased with the level of engagement our community has shown and how easy it has been for our employees to manage. But what we find particularly helpful is the ability to track issues reported within our service area and gain better perspective on the frequency, the location, and other information that will help us better serve our customers."
Future enhancements will include the addition of a drop-down list of responses to build consistency in communication with customers. Currently, customer service staff manually type a response. The drop-down list will allow them to choose one of several responses or create a custom reply if needed. WHUD hopes to build in a response time analysis to monitor how quickly problems are resolved. WHUD is also tracking after-hours phone calls received in 2020 to use as a comparison in 2021.
Building a Customer Service Hub out of Survey123 forms
While the Customer Problem Reporter was being launched, WHUD also tackled another big project—converting a group of static web forms into interactive, actionable ArcGIS Survey123 forms. As it was, customers could apply for service, transfer service, update their account, enroll in bank auto draft, apply for a leak adjustment, contact the district, or submit a satisfaction survey through web forms hosted at WHUD.org. While these tools allowed customers to submit this information without having to mail or drop off a completed form, the process was a bit cumbersome. The forms were long and lacked custom logic. Information submitted required manual data transfer into district software, tying up resources and increasing the risk for human error. Updates to the web forms required advanced coding, which often fell to an outside party, came with increased costs, and delayed the process of updating forms.
Facing all these obstacles and drawing on the success the district had experienced in using Survey123 for a request for availability of service form the previous year, WHUD set out to transfer all the existing web forms to Survey123. This move would give the district full control over the content and allow for the digital intake of customer data.
In spring 2020, seven Survey123 forms were created; branded with the district color scheme and logo; and tested for reliability, ease of use, and security of data. For this last step, the district drew on support from Esri’s Support Services team who provided direction on how to create secure surveys, conducted extensive testing on the platform, and made repeated attempts to hack into the data to ensure that it could not be accessed by third parties.
Additionally, several custom automated emails were created, much like the district did for the Customer Problem Reporter. However, for the Survey123 forms, WHUD used Microsoft Power Automate to create these automated notifications. The reason for using Power Automate on this project was twofold: first, the district already had access to the software through its Office 365 account, and second, it sought to create separation between the other automated emails. This platform provided ease of access and use outside of GIS for practically anyone.
Throughout this process, the district also realized another great opportunity—to create a hub site that would house these new tools and the new Customer Problem Reporter. The previous web forms were housed in the customer service section of the district website, but each had an individual page and required customers to do some searching on the site. Creating a hub site would put every form front and center and allow WHUD to direct customers to one central location to manage their account.
"We are all water customers, too, whether of WHUD or another provider," said Barlow, "and we work really hard to provide access to tools and information that we would appreciate as customers."
The hub site provided a great added benefit—the ability to track usage and analyze data trends. Since its launch in June, the Customer Service Hub has received nearly 26,600 views.
"Much like the Customer Problem Reporter, the processes we used prior to this were manual and made it very difficult to track data," said Barlow. "We had to physically count emails to know how many previous submissions came, and even with that, we would not be able to see where these submissions were coming from or gain any insight into how quickly we would be able to respond. Having this data feed into a dashboard helps us see in real time how much activity is occurring, where it's occurring, and how well we are responding. Over time, we hope to be able to see trends and better understand what various communities' value and how we can better serve them."
The dashboard Barlow mentioned is the Customer Service Inquiries Dashboard that shows Survey123 submissions in real time. Since June, the district has received nearly 1,100 forms; these include contact forms, update account requests, leak adjustment requests, bank auto draft enrollments, and stop service requests. The dashboard has provided visibility into who has responded to the customer and what information they shared, which has helped create greater consistency in how the district responds to each request. The district plans to use the dashboard going forward to determine additional metrics like employee response time or customer attitudes toward service.
With these programs still in their infancy, WHUD is eager to see the data it is able to glean in the year ahead. Perhaps the most telling success is the response of customers throughout 2020. Despite having to completely change the way many customers interact with the district; customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.