If you’ve been reading This Is Reno this week, you probably came across my interview with Kim Mazeres of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. In it, she illuminates TMWA’s operations and her perspective of its customer relations.
What struck me about the interview were two points: First, TMWA’s overall customer satisfaction is 87 percent. From a public agency standpoint, this is startling high. When companies like Verizon receive industry kudos for being a leader in customer satisfaction, for an agency like TMWA – local and geographically focused – I would imagine anything above 70 percent would be noteworthy.
This is compared with a company like Charter Communications, which has had notoriously poor customer relations in the Truckee Meadows to the point of noted hostility when its service contracts are renewed. And unlike many service entities, when you call TMWA, you actually get a person on the phone.
So why the ire expressed against TMWA? Human psychology dictates more attention gravitates toward the negative. But to focus on a minority of 13 percent, and likely far less than that – those who care enough to complain publicly after alleged poor treatment by TMWA customer services reps – fails to tell the complete story. To give airtime to the biggest of complainers in light of overall satisfaction is a gross disservice to the community, especially when total customer satisfaction information is ignored in order to spin the reality to make it appear worse than it really is.
Despite the fact that numbers don’t speak as loudly as anecdotes, TMWA is not at fault here. A public entity will never have 100 percent customer satisfaction, and customer complaints have at least two sides of the story. Since TMWA has specific procedures in place for payment problems, and employees tend to work with customers in light of hard times, it is likely that the problem lies elsewhere.
Which brings us to the second striking point in the interview: TMWA’s rate of lay payment by customers – 17,000, or 18 percent – and rate of service-disconnect orders: 400 to 500 each month (actual disconnects for service are lower than this number, according to TMWA, as customers will often negotiate payment plans once they see their service being turned off). I neglected to ask if these figures are worse given the economy; despite that, the numbers are startling and point to a broader, systemic problem. While customers are obligated to pay bills for water used, and TMWA is obligated to provide a quality service, a societal conundrum is exacerbated with customers who cannot afford to pay. TMWA takes a hit and other customers also take a hit because of non-paying customers, not to mention the amount of time and energy problem customers disproportionately take from staff.
In other words, difficult economic times mean we all end up sharing the burden for those hit hardest. But to aim arrows at established institutions is cheap and convenient; doing so only raises superficial indignation at the expense of those who are also struggling to deal with tough times and who are likely trying to work to make the situation better.