Empathy is Key in Customer Service

Customer Service Rep Role Goes Beyond Power Needs

The Customer Service team, from left, Haley Red Cloud Windsor, Laurie Layton, and Lilia Garcia help Northern Wasco County PUD customers address a wide range of needs when they call or visit the PUD. Kathy Ursprung photo

The Customer Service staff members at Northern Wasco County PUD don’t use the “S-word” or the “Q-word.”

They know that if they say a day is “slow” or “quiet” the situation will rapidly change.

As the faces and voices of the PUD, Haley Red Cloud Windsor, Laurie Layton,

and Lili Garcia spend most of their days working with the public at the PUD office counter or over the phone.

When you need some kind of help or change at the PUD, these are the first people you are likely to talk to. New service, changes in service, repairs, billing questions, and much more, these women work to make sure you get the help you need—and, as often as possible, that you are smiling when you are finished.

“At Customer Service, we really are the face and voice and determine what you think of the PUD,” says Laurie, whose role is both Customer Service Representative and Credit Collections. “We play a very important role in how the PUD is thought of.”

Sometimes the customers they work with definitely aren’t smiling when the conversation starts.

“We get all sorts of situations,” says Lili, who is the Customer Service Lead. “Some of them are really good and pleasant, some are not. We need to keep in mind and be understanding of what they are going through. A lot of times there is anger in us, but it’s not because of us. It’s because this is where they are and the situation they are in is not pleasant. We don’t take it personally. We try to help.”

“You have to have empathy and try to be as understanding as possible,” adds Haley, a Customer Service Representative. “Those are two big, key factors. Communication is key with customers. We can’t help you unless you communicate with us. If we have some understanding, we can turn a negative situation into a positive.”

In the wake of our cold, snowy weather this year, many of the situations recently have taken the form of bigger-than-usual bills. The PUD’s Customer Service Representatives can ease that situation a bit by helping work out extended repayment plans to spread out the repayment time.

In situations like this, it’s best to communicate early rather than wait for the power to get shut off.

“It’s never our goal to the power off,” Haley says. “We don’t like doing it. We don’t make the rules, we follow them. Communication is key. If you let us know ahead of time, rather than the day the power is getting shut off, it will make for a smoother ride in the end.”

Once the power is shut off, an additional $110 in cutoff and restart fees are added to the outstanding bill, so it’s better to work out the problem beforehand.

“We like being known for working with our customers,” Laurie says. “We truly care and respect them. We try to turn negative situations into positives. People come in sometimes crying or angry and our goal is to have them singing our praises.”

New technologies are helping the Customer Service staff be more efficient. For example, Haley has been taking the lead in implementing automated check scanning that speeds up payment processing. The scanner reads information like the amount and account number and applies the payment to the appropriate account.

“One thing we would like to get out there to customers is to make sure they get all of their account information updated and correct,” Laurie says.

Some customers are still using their old numbers, which could cause problems and delays in applying for payments.

It is important to either use the payment stub from your bill or write the new number on your check.

If you don’t know your account number, the Customer Service Representatives would be happy to help.

The majority of calls to Customer Service today are payments, but technology will soon help with that, too. When Laurie started with the PUD in 2004, you couldn’t make phone payments. Today, she estimates that 75 percent of their calls are payments.

“The phones just ring constantly and consume a lot of time,” she says.

However, more customers are becoming aware of the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which makes payments without Customer Service intervention, allowing them to spend more of their time on more complex customer needs.

For example, they can help analyze bills that seem unusually high for no obvious reason.

In some of these cases, added insulation or other conservation measures can help reduce those bills and the PUD Weatherization Department can help.

The rare quiet day (knock on wood) is catch-up time.

“We catch up on work, filing applications, correcting applications, dealing with return mail, address changes, the tickler file, getting delinquent notices out, keeping up on broken arrangements,” Laurie says.

When the day is anything but quiet, they sometimes recite a mantra in their spare moments, tapping their fingers with their thumbs: “Peace begins with me.”

And they support one another through the day’s challenges.

“At the end of the day, we truly care about each other,” Lili says. “One success is all of our successes and vice versa. We’re moving forward and adjusting to changes.”

The PUD Customer Service Representatives play another important role, beyond helping with power needs.

“A lot of times, especially our seniors, don’t really get out much and they will call and have a conversation with us,” Haley says. “They’ll tell us about their vacations and their plans. We know the Community beyond just their bills.”

Customers know them, too, and may bring in special treats at Christmas or other times.

Lili has been teaching Haley some Spanish and when Haley greeted one gentleman in his native language, he brought chili peppers in as appreciation for her efforts to understand him.

They save stamps from the mail for another customer who uses the stamps to raise money for a veteran's cause.

“There’s no replacement for personal interaction,” Lili says.

“Our customers are first in line to us,” Haley adds. “We do hold them near and dear to our hearts. They are important to us and we are very thankful for them.”

A Few Things to Know

The Customer Service Representatives at Northern Wasco County PUD would like you to be aware of a few things:

  • Please be sure to use the current number when referencing your account in payments to ensure payment is credited correctly.
  • If you need to make special payment arrangements, please contact the PUD as soon as possible. If power is cut off, extra fees can apply.
  • Payment assistance is available for qualifying customers through Mid-Columbia Community Action at 312 E. Fourth St. in The Dalles, or call (541) 298-5131 for details.
  • You can help fellow PUD customers who struggle with making payments by contributing to the Neighbor to Neighbor program. Sign up at the PUD.