Sell a good product at a fair price and take care of your customers’ needs and wants and you’ll be successful.
That’s the gist of what JEA has learned since 2012, when the community-owned not-for-profit utility increased its involvement with J.D. Power and Associates.
The agreement with the international survey firm was part of a change in culture that began with the hiring of Paul McElroy to take over as JEA’s managing director and CEO. Mike Hightower, who was board chairman, said at the time the board was favoring a change in JEA’s relationship with its customers. It was time for the utility to be “customer centric.”
J.D. Power is paid $50,000 per year to survey more than 1,000 business and residential customers and provide data that JEA uses to evaluate and improve customer service and relations. Questions address issues such as billing and payment, corporate citizenship, customer service, communications, power quality and reliability and price.
Having the survey data helps JEA understand what customers like and don’t like about their service. That has led to changes that mirror the consumer’s needs.
“It is a very good road map,” said Tim Hunt, JEA’s director of customer and utility analytics. “It allows us to focus on what is important to customers so we can serve them better.”
Jacksonville residents and businesses who want electricity and water have only one choice: JEA. Asked if it’s really important to measure customer satisfaction when the product is being sold by a monopoly, Hunt said it is.
“Just because we’re a monopoly doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to provide good, dependable service at the lowest possible price,” he said. “City Council could sell us if we’re not doing a good job.”
Survey data has meant a change in how JEA analyzes its infrastructure. In the past, maintenance decisions and schedules were based on age of equipment and other “engineering standpoint” criteria. Now, the evaluation is based on the customer’s experience, Hunt said.
For example, how JEA crews respond to outages has evolved. Time to restoration is half that of other Florida utilities and the number of brief service interruptions has decreased by 50 percent, compared to five years ago.
“We’re making better diagnoses so we can cut to the chase and get the right person out there the first time,” said Hunt.
According to the survey, JEA’s residential customer satisfaction index improved from 640 in 2013 to 701. Business customer satisfaction also improved in that period from 619 to 723. Rankings are based on a maximum score of 1,000 points and are used to track a utility’s trends and to compare its performance to other utilities.
Monica Whiting, chief customer officer, said the extensive data gathering has led JEA to focus its customer service improvement on three areas: making it easy to do business with JEA; helping customers make decisions about their utility usage and payment options; and social responsibility.
In addition to electronic billing and payment options that were in place before the J.D. Power contract, JEA now offers a payment plan that allows customers to pay nearly the same amount each month regardless of consumption. The utility also lets customers opt to pay in advance, thus avoiding having to submit a deposit to begin service.
“It’s 2015. People expect options and choices,” said Whiting.
Last year, 59 percent of customers paid their bill electronically, compared to the industry average of 51.5 percent. Not having to print and mail monthly bills or process payments through customer service centers saves operating costs, which allows JEA to better control rates.
The greater focus on the community it serves motivated JEA’s 2,200 employees to donate more than $420,000 to the United Way of Northeast Florida, Community Health Charities and The College Fund.
More than 700 employees last year contributed about 4,000 hours to community service, compared to about 200 employee volunteers in 2012. JEA staff taught financial literacy in public schools, volunteered at food banks or helped repair homes for the elderly and disadvantaged.
“All of our employees are engaged with how they can make a positive difference every day,” said Whiting.
Lisa Strange Weatherby was one of the directors who voted to approve JEA’s contract with J.D. Power. Now the board’s interim chair, she is convinced using the survey data to change how the utility does business was the right decision.
“We have achieved a lot. Everybody, from top to bottom, is focused on improvement,” she said. “It’s not a large investment, but it’s paying large dividends.”