The City of Houston has selected planning, engineering and program management firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) to develop...
Thanks to the forward-thinking management team and board of directors at the Henry County Water & Sewerage Authority (HCWSA), a lucky population of homeowners and businesses in south metro Atlanta, Ga. is benefiting from the highly motivated employees of the public water utility.
Authority General Manager Lindy Farmer and his staff are progressive thinkers. When they compared the growth rates of their Southern community with the organization’s method of getting monthly meter readings, they understood the importance of staying on top of changing technology and knew it was time to consider innovations to help. So, Farmer placed his confidence in Customer Service Manager Ray Novotny, Chief Financial Officer Roderick Burch and authority staff, challenging them to service the authority’s growing number of 54,000 customers with a better reading system that eliminated estimates and improved recording accuracy.
The result? Employees now have ownership of the task and the technology, better enabling them to advance the authority’s mission to provide the best possible customer service to utility accounts. And these professionals are thriving on it. Through in-house instruction and preparation, HCWSA staffers surpassed the title and responsibility of being merely “meter readers” and are now more highly skilled “field technicians” who are cross-trained on all of the roles and responsibilities in customer service. Employees have authority over their routes and autonomy to think on their feet, share information and offer solutions for increasing customer service performance, beginning with meter reading efficiency.
One of those solutions involved the review of the RadioRead system the authority had in place to determine if they were optimizing its capabilities. Their findings revealed that sometimes up to 1,000 meters were not being read during a typical customer service billing cycle. To help resolve the issue, they enlisted the help of Ray Smith, AMR sales manager of Kendall Supply, the local Sensus authorized AMR distributor.
The authority team, which also included Field Technician David House and Lead Field Technician Jason Craig, among others, determined that existing routes should be reworked into a comprehensive mapping program. These professionals replaced an original meter reading tactic that featured one big route and no assistance from any GPS software with a more methodological approach. Field technicians who knew neighborhood routes well recommended how to divide Henry County’s 330 sq miles into four cycles, featuring 16 routes per cycle. The primary goal: equip four technicians who could team up to read one route each day, with the most pressing objective being to eliminate blind reads and estimates.
The staff initiated the new system configuration by first focusing on a smaller route to work out any bugs, and then gradually expanding implementation to include the entire service area.
“Our goal was to have a field technician read all of a route’s meters in one day and perform any service needed, and then return to the office with all meters being accounted for,” Novotny said.
The authority’s mapping procedure not only worked, but it also could serve as a model for the industry. With an in-house training program, open communication, and all of the technicians’ ability to manage their own routes, the new technology, combined with the new approach, paved the way to unmatched productivity. Cycles that used to take one week to read were completed in less than two days. In addition, accuracy soared. Today, the Henry County Water & Sewerage Authority registers zero non-reads and no estimates. And bills go out on time to satisfied customers. In fact, the new approach to implementing its RadioRead system has resulted in the authority not being late at any point in its billing since the system took effect five years ago.
“Our new system proves that for ultimate efficiency in a growing county such as ours, mapping is crucial,” Craig explained.
The HCWSA uses the Sensus RadioRead system with the Model 520 Series MXUs (featuring the patented TouchCoupler technology), the VXU drive-by system, AutoVu software for route reading and GPS on-screen graphic mapping, and AutoRead software for reporting. This equipment is used to address the unique management challenges for a water utility that serves one of the top 10 fastest growing counties in the country. The authority is consistently increasing its customer base by approximately 10% annually, to the tune of more than 4,000 new customers coming on line each year.
“We took a system and made it work,” said Burch, the chief financial officer. “If anyone is considering implementing RadioRead, they should contact us and seriously consider implementing our type of customer service model.”
That HCWSA model is centered on creating well-trained customer service field technicians. Novotny, the customer service manager, combined the customer service, technical and operations staff into one unit. Instead of staffers only being trained in reading meters, the HCWSA approach allows employees in the field to fix problems on the spot without having to request a service call. If their routes are done early, these field techs, understanding the importance of preventive maintenance, have time to check their routes to ensure all meters are working properly or assist teammates with any of their routes.
“It’s all about respecting the abilities of our staff and giving them ownership of their routes and job responsibilities,” Novotny said. “Our RadioRead system works better because we let our professionals who are doing the reads also make the calls on how to keep the system running.”
David House is one of those technicians. Part of his responsibilities at the authority is to train new technicians. “There’s an element of pride in our work,” he said. “If we find problems, we can fix them quickly.”
The AutoVu software provides a mapping interface to graphically depict the location of each meter along a customer service route in the field. This enables field technicians to understand which meters have not been read and why. At that point, training kicks in, and technicians have the tools and knowledge to fix a failed reading and get the problem solved on site.
Novotny didn’t stop with the field technicians. He also took customer service representatives whose job it was to answer the phones and accept payments and had them ride along in the trucks of the technicians to get a better understanding of what life in the field was like. Then, to further build empathy and understanding among HCWSA customer service colleagues, the techs took their turn at the customer service window to get a taste of that position.
While no company ever implements a change without some bumps in the road, Novotny said the staff at the Henry County Water & Sewage Authority embraced the idea pretty quickly. He said he knew the model was catching on when one technician approached him and asked to change trucks.
Novotny recalled, “I asked him why he needed a different truck, and he said his truck read ‘Meter Reader’ on the door. He wanted a truck that read ‘Customer Service Technician’ instead.”
The same 12 technicians who previously read 20,000 homes prior to the new customer service and mapping changes now read 54,000 meters, with greater accuracy, every month. In addition, they are charged with testing, maintaining, repairing and installing about 5,000 new units annually. Turnover in the customer service department is low, and Novotny admits he takes his time to hire the right people for this job. In fact, his staff has a combined total of 336 years of customer service experience.
“This whole model is based on teamwork,” Novotny explained. “I want someone who is competitive and a self-starter, but who also understands the value of working within a team.”
Burch said that the authority’s water loss is at an all-time low, and attributes that fact to better maintenance and faster customer service. Collections, too, are done more efficiently. Less than one-half of 1% of bills fail to get collected, and authority officials believe a direct link to that success is the higher visibility of the field technicians, coupled with their customer services skills.
Another asset to the HCWSA’s use of the RadioRead system is the recent installation of SRII meters and the 520 Series MXUs, utilizing the patented TouchCoupler technology. These new MXUs have reduced installation time by approximately 300%, trimming about five minutes off installation per MXU. Such savings have value to field technicians.
“Faster installation gives us more time to troubleshoot and increase productivity for our customers,” Craig noted.
The HCWSA, a prior user of the Sensus TouchRead equipment, now uses the TouchCoupler 520 MXU. The upgrade from TouchRead to RadioRead is done by simply plugging the existing TouchRead sensor or TouchPad into the RadioRead package. The new device eliminates the need for wiring and gel caps.
Ahead of the curve
The daily operations at HCWSA reflect a well-honed management and employee structure that has teamwork, mutual trust, respect, and a proven approach to meter reading and customer service as its foundation. With the help of the RadioRead system, the HCWSA can more easily and efficiently keep its customer meters running, without interruption or imposition.
“Our authority has a philosophy to invest in innovations and new technology in order to stay ahead of the curve on industry standards and regulatory compliance,” Farmer said. “We went to great lengths to get the RadioRead technology implemented throughout our entire system, and our customers should continue to reap the benefits in accurate readings and better service for years to come.”