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Clearwater to improve customer service
A consulting firm suggests ways to make the process more efficient
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CLEARWATER – Although Clearwater has long prided itself on the efficiency of its Customer Service Department, city officials recently decided that there might be ways to make a good thing even better.

Accordingly, on July 18, the City Council authorized the expenditure of $86,141 to have Raftelis Financial Consultants conduct an efficiency study of CCS and the seven utilities it supports: water, sewer, reclaimed water, storm water, gas, solid waste, and recycling.

At the council’s Dec. 16 work session, Raftelis representatives Doug Bean and Elaine Vastis presented their findings.

“Our process was both broad and deep,” Bean told the council. “We talked with the people who were doing the job in the field; we didn’t just talk to managers.”

They studied the department’s organizational structure, its management and administration and its four main functions: collections, customer care, accounting and meter reading. They paid particular attention to technology, workloads, communication, policies, and processes. In the end, they came up with 33 recommendations in six categories.

“Overall, the results indicate that the City is providing quality and effective customer service, but additional efficiencies can be gained by focusing on key competencies of CCS and divesting of functions that are more aligned with other existing departments,” a staff memo to the council explained.

CCS should remain its own department, the report said, but its bill collecting duties should be turned over to the city’s Finance Department.

“They’re the money people,” Bean said.

When gas or water service is turned off for non-payment of bills, the study suggests having it done by staffers of the appropriate department who are already in the field turning on service for new customers and turning off service for buildings that are being vacated. Currently, Customer Service employees are responsible for turning off the service of delinquent accounts.

The report suggests changing the names of CCS and its divisions to more accurately reflect the duties they perform. It also says that there should be an unambiguous “service level agreement” between CCS and each utility it supports. And calls to the Gas System should be handled by its own customer service representatives instead of going through CCS.

Different levels of customer service representatives should be established, the report says, and each should have its own pay grade. That would have the dual benefits of letting customers deal with someone at the appropriate level and encouraging employees to work to the best of their ability in hopes of being prompted to the next level.

The CCS phone system needs to be updated or replaced with an Interactive Voice Response System, the report says, and calls should be qualified before being transferred to the appropriate department. Expanding tablet usage in the Public Utilities work order system and enhancing on-line service provisions for such things as opening new water service accounts were among the other technology-related recommendations.

When Vice Mayor Paul Gibson asked, Vastis said that Clearwater compares favorably with other cities of similar size for which Raftelis has done studies, although it lags slightly in the category of high technology. Gibson replied that Clearwater should investigate “the cost versus payback” of upgrading its technology.

The council agreed that the city will prioritize Raftelis’ recommendations and implement them in the order of their priority.

“That is exactly what I intend to do,” City Manager Bill Horne told the council. “At the end of the day, I think it will make us better.”
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