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Make It Personal

Release Date: May 12, 2020 • Episode #116

Utilities are a vital part of everyday living in modern times: it’s our power, heat, communication, and, of course, our source of water, which is the only utility consumable by humans. This presents a different level of complexity and challenges for a company preparing and treating water for customers. Host Steve Walker welcomes guest Georgetta Parisi, vice-president for customer operations at Aqua, an Essential utility company that provides water and wastewater services to more than 3 million people across 8 states. They discuss the importance of empathy when providing critical products and services to customers.

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Steve:
Here's a little quiz. Can you think of a product provided by a company that is considered vital for our survival, and you use multiple times every day of your life.

Georgetta:
Customer experience becomes critical for our customers in this space because it's very personal. Right? It's making sure that my family is drinking safe water. And when there is a problem, how do we handle it?

Steve:
Exploring customer experience for a utility company on this episode of The CX Leader Podcast.

Announcer:
The CX Leader Podcast with Steve Walker is a production of Walker, an experience management firm that helps companies accelerate their CX success. Find out more at walkerinfo.com.

Steve:
Hello, everyone. I'm Steve Walker, host of The CX Leader Podcast, and thank you for listening. On The CX Leader Podcast, we explore the topics and themes to help leaders like you leverage all the benefits of your customer experience and help your customers and prospects want to do more business with you. Well, I'm excited about today's topic because in the over 100 episodes we've produced of The CX Leader Podcast, we've never discussed CX within a utility company. Utilities are such a vital part of everyday living in modern times. It's our power, heat, communication, and of course, our source of water, which is the only utility that is consumable by humans. This presents a different level of complexity and challenges for a company preparing and treating water for customers. Joining me on the podcast today is Georgetta Parisi, vice president of customer operations at Aqua, an Essential utility company that provides water and wastewater services to more than three million people across eight states and has been in business for over 130 years. Georgetta, welcome to The CX Leader Podcast.

Georgetta:
Thank you, Steve. Appreciate you asking me to join. Looking forward to our discussion today.

Steve:
Yeah, I am too. And welcome to the virtual version of recording The CX Leader Podcast in these interesting times. You know, I know a little bit about your background, but just for our audience, why don't you give us a little bit of context. And it's always interesting to find out how people made their way into the CX world.

Georgetta:
Sure. So I joined Aqua about two and a half years ago. I actually manage all of our customer care functions. So our customer facing teams our… our call center operations, customer care as long as well as our back office functions, which includes our billing, our collections and cash application functions. And I also provide strategic thought leadership for our customer experience program. And I got into the customer experience space probably about 10 years ago, having come from another organization where I ran a very large global customer care organization. So been doing this probably for about 10 years now.

Steve:
Interesting you came up through the customer service, customer care side. It's always interesting to see how people have gotten into the business. So this is a little bit of a leading question based on my background and experience, but explain for our customers why it's so essential that a water utility would have a CX practice and would want to be customer focused.

Georgetta:
Sure. So, you know, I think historically when we think about water and wastewater services, because we also provide wastewater services, you know, we think about the fact that customers don't really have a choice in who their provider is. And so you may get sort of caught in that trap of, well, why does customer experience really matter, right? But customer experience for our customers is about turning that faucet on. Is their water safe to drink? Is it clear? Does it smell? Can I bathe my children in the water? Can I cook food for my family for dinner in the water? And so customer experience becomes critical for our customers in this space because it's very personal. Right? It's really about making sure that my family, right, is drinking safe water. And it's also about when there is a problem, how do we handle it? Are we creating a interaction with our customers in such a way that they can feel confident in what it is that we're providing them? So all the touch points that we have with our customers becomes critical because of that, because of what we provide is essential. It is life sustaining. And so customer experience becomes very important for us because we want to make sure our customers feel good about what we're doing and what we're providing.

Steve:
Yeah, actually, a couple of things that you mentioned there. One is that from a marketing standpoint, we talk about features and benefits a lot. And, you know, the features of water are it's really a commodity. But the benefits, like you mentioned, you know, is it safe? Can I bathe my kids? Can I drink it? And those are the things that I think sometimes we take for granted. But, you know, it almost becomes even more important for something that's life sustaining. The other thing I think about, too, is I come from the market research background and actually the fascination with customer experience and the use of it actually originated in the regulated utilities back in the highly regulated days of the telephone system, the bell system, AT&T. They actually use these as the way that they generated accountability back to governments and regulators by doing these longitudinal studies of service quality levels as based on the customer's perception. So in some ways, this whole business has its origins back in the utilities. And it was a way to sort of say in the absence of a profit motive or some sort of competitive set, how could you ensure that the public was being well served? So I always find that to be kind of an interesting historically. Now, it's been applied almost to every single industry you can think of. Why did Essential decide to launch a formal CX program? And was that part of the reason you were brought in?

Georgetta:
Yes, I at least I'd like to think so. Right? So, you know, one of the things that becomes important – and you sort of alluded to it earlier – is in the utility space because customers don't have a choice, it becomes important to think about how is it that we are providing exceptional service to them? And Aqua Essential you know, we decided that it was important because our consumers today, they don't look at us and compare us necessarily to other utilities. Right? They actually compare us to their experiences with all kinds of service providers or products. So how we perform against those other organizations outside our space becomes important. And so understanding what our customers feel and experience with us is important because it helps drive organizational and process and technology change internally that can help provide ongoing exceptional service. So we really wanted to understand what are our customers thinking about us? How are they experiencing us? We sort of have our own idea internally, but what are they really saying? And in one of the things that is also interesting for me and in being in this industry, too, is many customers don't interact with us, say verbally or transactionally, if you will. They experience us when they turn that faucet on. And so how they experience it, what they think, was important to us. So we wanted to understand that so that we can continue to provide exceptional service and in sort of continue to raise the bar.

Steve:
Yeah. You know, our our podcast is for CX pros, and you said a couple of things that I just want to reinforce for our pros. One is, you know, you don't benchmark only in your industry. You can learn an awful lot by talking to your peers in other industries because there's many, many good things that go on. I actually was, you know, kind of considering the current situation with the coronavirus. I sat in on a webcast yesterday with other CEOs of mid-sized companies, and most of them have nothing to do with my business. But I probably I wrote down six or seven things I learned during that hour that I think we could apply to our business. And I think that's one thing that CX pros really can take advantage of by just hearing the story. And then you talk about the experience economy: it really is an experience economy and we're all kind of spoiled in a way. And it's good when you're a consumer, but your expectations get pretty high for service and particularly for something as essential as water. So over your journey, what things have you learned? What things have you done? How's your journey going?

Georgetta:
You know, it's been a fascinating experience because the process that we went through is – at least right now, anyway, and certainly, hopefully over time we'll expand this – but, you know, we're very focused on the residential water customer. That's a significant majority of our customer base. And so we really want to understand sort of all those touchpoints. So we went through a journey mapping process and identified internally with a cross-functional team representing multiple areas of our organization. And with Walker's help, we map that journey and identified all those key touch points. So water quality, setting up service with us, getting a bill, maybe needing a field technician to come out to your home to to fix something. Communications. So a number of different touch points. And so internally, we sort of said, "hey, are we good at this? Not so good at this? What what do we think?" And then we use that information to develop our relational customer survey so that we could go out and actually measure the experience customers were having with us across those touch points. And I think what we learned was a couple key things. Number one, there were areas that we thought maybe we're not so good at, but our customers actually said, you are. You know, you're really good at setting up service with, you know, for us. And so we were really pleased to hear that feedback. And then, you know, maybe some other areas where we thought we were pretty good and maybe not as much as what our customers would say. So, for example, you know, our customers gave us feedback that the way in which we communicate with them could be different. And what they're looking for in the channels or the mechanisms and the sort of information that they're looking for from us really sort of opened our eyes on where some opportunities lie. The other thing that I think was really fascinating, too, was I mentioned it earlier, is sixty six percent of our customers that responded to our first survey had actually not had an experience with us other than, you know, consuming and then turning that faucet on, in the previous twelve months. And so it really demonstrated to us how important it is that we're not just thinking about the customer that's interacting with us, but rather the entire customer base. We can't make assumptions that just because you don't contact us doesn't mean that you're not experiencing us. And so I think those are just really great findings through this process that we learned.

Steve:
My guest on the podcast this week is Georgetta Parisi. She's the vice president for customer operations at Aqua Essential, and she's giving us a MBA in how to start up a CX listening and overall customer experience program at a organization. You guys did this right. And I just want to emphasize this. It's always better to do the journey mapping exercise first before you design your survey. So in all cases, that is the best way to do it. And I just want to reinforce that because oftentimes, you know, people do slap up a survey without going through the process. So and then I think just the fact that you found out that two thirds of your customers, you haven't had a personal interaction with them in twelve months. I wonder how many companies actually know that stat, because that is really kind of a critical finding right there. So since you're our first utility guest, could you talk about maybe what's similar for a utility versus what's different? What do you measure in your CX program that maybe everybody would? But then what are some of the kind of unique differences that you've had to adjust work for?

Georgetta:
That's a great question, Steve. So, you know, I well, we decided to do you know, when we think about customer experience and how we measure customer experience, there isn't… There's there's so many different indicators. Right? And you know how to go about deciding what was going to be important to us, how to really think through that. Because, you know, we didn't want to measure, say, net promoter score. Right? Because, you know, it's not like people again, have a choice. And we didn't want to necessarily do a loyalty score because, again, customers don't have a choice. So we really focused in on satisfaction. And in the utility space, and then I think you see this even outside utilities is there's there's really sort of no standards. Right? And so to benchmark ourselves against utilities in terms of customer satisfaction is is difficult because we all sort of measure things differently. And we all have… we're all sort of on the customer experience journey at different phases. So we decided to measure customer satisfaction to benchmark sort of a first year measurement. And we'll use that as our guideline in future measurements and surveys that we would potentially do in the future. Whereby are we moving the dial on customer satisfaction? And based on the feedback that we got from the survey, we've set up some internal work groups to really focus in and hone in on some operational improvements wrapped around a number of different topics. And when we go out measure again, we are looking at, you know, did we move the dial? Did we take the actions necessary to drive customer satisfaction levels up?

Steve:
You know, one of the things that we're all dealing with is the sort of the the times that we're in, which are unprecedented in almost any business persons who's alive today has never lived through a pandemic. Humans have dealt with pandemics basically since the beginning of history. But for those of us that are living today, we've never dealt with this. But some of the things we've been trying to focus in on the podcast is how do you maintain your customer focus through a crisis? And obviously, I think we become more grateful for the things that we take for granted at these times. And waters one of those. But how is Aqua Essential adapted to this situation? And what are some of the special things that I know you guys are doing?

Georgetta:
Yeah. Great question. And you're right. So, you know, none of us have experienced this before. And so we're sort of building the playbook as we go. And, you know, there's a couple of things. You know, number one, we were about to, and we decided to move forward, but we were about to launch the transactional survey aspect of our listening post, which is specific around a customer's interaction with our contact center, as well as the interactions that they would have with our field service personnel. And I really wrestled with whether or not I should move forward with launching these surveys in the midst of a COVID. Was it the right thing to do? Would it potentially put our customers off? Would they be potentially aggravated with us in some sort of way that we were surveying them? But I decided to move forward because I thought now more than ever, it's so critical to stay tuned to our customers because we need to understand what they're experiencing personally. And, you know, when you think about this COVID crisis, right, we have the recommendations that we need to be, you know, washing our hands. Right? So water is critical to being able to do that. And so, you know, we have this public health crisis and here what we provide is is essential to that. And so we moved forward with launching the surveys, the transactional surveys. I'm glad that we did. We're able to respond very quickly to any outstanding issues customers might have. So what I… What we stood up was sort of this process whereby if a customer happened to say in their survey response that they had an unresolved issue it actually creates what we call a trigger or a ticket, whatever you want to call it. And it kicks back to my customer care team so that a member of the team can actually proactively connect with that customer and to work through whatever that outstanding issue is. And so, you know, I think about it from the perspective that we all have such a high level of anxiety on a personal level, then we have high level anxiety as professionals. And so to be able to remove the anxiety or frustration that a customer may have just in general because of what we're all experiencing, makes the difference in who we are and how we support our customers.

Steve:
So we've been doing some podcasts on how do you respond to the crisis. in some ways we've been saying, hey, maybe it's not a good time to interview your customers, but in the case of a water utility, probably there would never be a better time to be gaining feedback because it is so essential and so critical. And then I was thinking probably some of your staff doesn't have the option of working from home under these circumstances. Right?

Georgetta:
Well, you know, actually, I was able to transition my entire organization to a work at home model in partnership with a fantastic technology team that we have. We were able to stand it up. You it took a couple days, couple weeks. But we were able to in phases. We we've transitioned our entire call center operations to work at home in my entire…

Steve:
Wow.

Georgetta:
…organization. Yeah. Which is just fantastic. It's… it helps our employees feel safe and we're able to support all the stay at home orders. I mean, as a utility, we are considered essential personnel. So we need to be doing our jobs. And so to be able to do that in people's homes, at least for my aspect of the organization, was important. And to be able to do that, it means that our employees are able to stay focused on supporting our customers through this difficult time.

Steve:
That's fantastic that you could switch to home so quickly from a call center environment. That's probably a podcast worthy story right there. I imagine that there's some other folks that are out in the field, though, that don't have that choice right there. They're almost like first responders. Really?

Georgetta:
Yeah, they really are. And, you know, we follow the CDC guidelines for them to keep them safe and keep our customers safe through this. You know, we've sort of modified the way in which we work in the field so that, you know, we're really focused on emergency situations. So that way we, again, can keep our employees safe and our customers safe.

Steve:
Well, this podcast has reinforced my gratitude for something that we kind of take for granted. And so I appreciate that. We are so dependent on our utilities during these difficult times. And I know you guys are doing some things even extra special for your customers. And I want to give you an opportunity to share some of those things.

Georgetta:
Now, I appreciate that. Yeah. So certainly during these difficult times, people are finding themselves without work. Right? Our unemployment skyrocketed. We have been working diligently to stand up different programs that would be available to customers that are financially distressed during this period of time. We have stood up flexible payment arrangement programs. We have customer assistance programs that are available to customers because we want to make sure that our customers are able to continue to pay their bills. And these programs that we're standing up is in direct response to these difficult times that people are experiencing. You know, a lot of people have suddenly found themselves without income, and that creates a level of distress and anxiety that we want to help minimize in that regard as well. So getting creative in the different programs that we're offering and really sort of working with our customers as best we can with their personal situation. So that was another important thing that we have been focused on during COVID.

Steve:
Well, thank you. These are certainly unprecedented times and it's a real comfort to know that people like you at companies like Aqua Essential are helping get us through this difficult time. All right, Georgetta, we've made it to the signature part of our show where we provide take home value for our listeners. So, Georgetta Parisi, what is your take home value for our CX leaders this week?

Georgetta:
Yeah. Thank you. So, you know, I would say make it personal, right? The best way to be able to support your customers is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. And what I do in the company that I work for is extremely personal. And when you're able to do that, I think you can really think through how to make the best decisions you possibly can for your customers to make sure that they're experiencing you in the best possible way and that you're responding to their needs as effectively as possible. So I say make it personal.

Steve:
And those are wise words to live by. Georgetta Parisi has been my guest on the podcast this week. She is the vice president for customer operations at Aqua, an Essential utility. Georgetta, thanks so much for being our guest on The CX Leader Podcast.

Georgetta:
Thank you. Appreciate being afforded the opportunity to talk with you today. Thank you very much.

Steve:
Well, the pleasure's been ours. And if people want to try to connect with you, do you have a LinkedIn profile out there that…

Georgetta:
I sure do. Yeah, Absolutely.

Steve:
… alright. And you want to reference a Web site for Aqua in case people want to study up on you a little more?

Georgetta:
Sure. Visit us at essential.co and you will see we are a water and wastewater utility and a gas distribution utility as well. So lots of good information out on our website.

Steve:
Well, thanks again for sharing your story. And really a textbook in how to stand up a great customer experience program. Thank you.

Georgetta:
Thank you.

Steve:
And if you want to talk about anything else you heard on this podcast or about how Walker can help your business's customer experience, feel free to email me at steve.walker@walkerinformation.com. Remember to visit our website, cxleaderpodcast.com to subscribe to the show and find all of our previous episodes, podcast series, and contact information so you can let us know how we're doing. The CX Leader Podcast is a production Walker, we're an experience management firm that helps companies accelerate their CX success. You can read more about us at Walkerinfo.com. Thanks for listening and we'll see you again next time.

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