Using Technological Innovation to Improve Customer Service
Greenwood Commissioners of Public Works

Delivering exceptional customer service requires knowledge of your customers, creative thinking and innovative use of resources including technology.  It’s also an endeavor typically reserved for large organizations with budgets that match their size, but increasingly more modest sized groups are developing novel ideas to offer customers exceptional levels of service. 

Take the Greenwood Commissioners of Public (CPW) works in South Carolina.  This not-for-profit independent government agency has a tall order for a modest sized organization.  Their goal is to provide reliable, safe water, power and gas at the lowest possible cost to consumers.  And by the way, they strive to do this with a customer driven approach to community which mirrors their motto; Your Neighbor…Working For You!

In fact, Greenwood CPW serves over 48,000 customers in and around Greenwood City and the county of Greenwood in South Carolina.  They service both residential and commercial customers as well as servicing billing for the sewer district.   They operate from 3 physical locations; their main office which handles primarily administrative functions, their central operations center where all crews are dispatched out of, and their water plant on Lake Greenwood which processes and distributes water from the main water source.

And Greenwood CPW is good at what they do.  They’ve received numerous awards such as being recognized for their commitment to superior water quality by maintaining the Partnership for Safe Water Excellence in Water Treatment Award for five consecutive years.  In fact, Greenwood is only the fourth water provider in the nation to receive the five-year excellence in water treatment award and the only one in South Carolina.  And it’s more impressive when one considers there are 38,000 water systems across the nation including large water districts such as Atlanta and Chicago!  They’ve also been recognized for best tasting water and the lowest electric rates in the state.

Jeff Auman, Greenwood CPW’s Director of Information Systems is responsible for the computer systems that manage all of this.  Mr. Auman defines their IT infrastructure in three server groups;
- GIS and systems related to meter monitoring and control.
- Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCDA) system which monitor and operate systems such as within the water plant. These systems are required to operate 24x7 and are in place for gas, electric and water.

- Financial and administrative systems including customer billing, financials, warehouse inventory, work orders, vehicle maintenance, budget, fixed assets, payroll and more are serviced? by the IBM i power system.  The core of the majority of these systems is based on software provide by Associated Systems, Inc.  Greenwood CPW, along with their trusted partner, Respect Technology, Inc. have heavily modified the software and added to it over the years to meet their specific requirements.

Respect Technology, Inc. has helped Greenwood CPW make innovative use of systems and technology primarily related to the IBM i.  In fact, Respect provides technology services and software development with focus on IBM i.  Respect Technology has been instrumental in driving the innovative use of technologies like iVoice interactive voice response (IVR) from iMessaging Systems, Inc.

In its quest to continually improve customer service Greenwood CPW was looking for an interactive voice response (IVR) system to supplement its live customer service operations and web based services.  Jeff Auman notes, “we certainly had good acceptance of our web based customer service tools….they provide the ability for customers to view their current bill, pay their bill, and review account histories, however, we recognized that there was a percentage of our customers who don’t have access to a computer.  So, our first goal for the IVR was to replicate the web-based functions.”

With the help of Respect Technology, Greenwood CPW implemented the original iVoice IVR from iMessaging Systems, Inc. in 2008, but innovative thinking has driven growth of the IVR and improvements in customer service over the last few years.

“As we considered our operational challenges it was clear that outbound calls were a major burden.  I discussed how we might address this issue with Danny Duncan, President of Respect Technology and we thought the iVoice IVR might offer a solution,” notes Jeff Auman. 

The first outbound calling application mutually developed by Respect Technology and Greenwood CPW was to address the calling requirements when an account was to be shut-off.  It is a legal responsibility to notify households of impending shut-offs.  The heavy burden on Greenwood’s staff having to make these calls was automated and off-loaded to iVoice IVR.  Now, the system calls the customer, initiates an interactive call and even allows the customer to pay by phone during the call.  Records are kept of call attempts, call connects and the call results.  The new function has saved a tremendous amount of time in customer service.

With the success of the first outbound application, Greenwood was ready to continue to leverage the capabilities of iVoice and the obvious choice was to tackle gas meter inspections. While Greenwood CPW has advanced meter reading systems that can capture multiple meter reads via radio while driving the street, they are required to physically inspect each meter once annually for safety reasons.  iVoice was employed to place outbound calls and notify customers of when the inspector will visit to be sure meter is accessible for inspection.  Of course, iVoice doesn’t get through to the caller all of the time, but it makes 3 call attempts and then an exception report is created for sites that require special attention. 

While these two outbound IVR applications have certainly saved Greenwood CPW considerable time and money they are also tools that improve service to their customers.  In particular, the shut-off calls provide important notifications that avoid potentially life threatening situations, especially in the cold winter months.  What’s more the system is anonymous and less threatening to the customer than a call from a live customer service representative.

And more IVR applications are planned in the near term.   Jeff and his team are considering another outbound application related to outages for gas and power to aid in the identification of geographic areas where restoration of service is being worked on.  “By systematically calling customers in a specific geography we can pinpoint areas that have had service restored and more importantly areas that remain without service”, says Jeff Auman.

Another application will notify customers following a water main break regarding instructions for safe water use.  For example, when a main is repaired a certain amount of water needs to flow through the line to be sure line has been flushed of contaminants and debris.  For example, the system will notify customers in a particular area that they should boil their water for 24 hours until the lines are clear.

One more particularly proactive application under consideration has the potential to save customers on their monthly bills.  When Greenwood’s systems notice a spike in usage for a given time period that is not typical based on a given customer’s past usage, iVoice IVR can be triggered to place an outbound call to the customer notifying them of the increased usage. The increase may be due to factors the customer is not aware of such as a water line leak.  The proactive call can save the customer unexpected high utility bills.

When searching for the IVR system, Greenwood CPW considered both pre-programmed along with iVoice IVR.  “We chose iVoice because it provides us with the flexibility to design our IVR call flows as we wanted and to add new applications along the way.  Without this flexibility we would not be able to innovate and add new applications as we have.  And, while our first IVR application that mirror our web service is what drove the initial purchase, the new applications are where we are seeing our investment really pay dividends,“ says Jeff.  “When you consider the personnel savings and improvements in customer service, iVoice has been a great investment for us.”