Hydro One Scrambles to Revamp Customer Service as it Faces Outrage Over Electricity Prices
TORONTO — Faced with customer outrage over skyrocketing prices for electricity in Ontario, Hydro One Networks Inc., the largest utility in the province, has turned to the power of behavioral science to help solve its problems.
Warren Lister, Hydro One’s recently named vice-president of customer service, said one of his first tasks is to redesign the Hydro One bill.
“We reached out to 19,000 customers across the province and said, ‘Where can we improve?’ ” Lister said in an interview at Hydro One’s head office in Toronto. “We have heard loud and clear that one of the dissatisfiers is, ‘I don’t understand my bill.’ So we have an initiative now, it’s called Bill Redesign, and for us it’s huge, because each year we issue 15 million paper bills.”
Lister, who began his customer service career at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool — which merged with Agricore United in 2007 to become Viterra Inc. — joined Hydro One in July.
“The last 10 years of my life I have spent in agriculture, automotive and light manufacturing, dealing with how to improve the customer experience,” Lister said. “I have picked up and learned a lot, and I would like to apply to this industry, through some of the basic blocking and tackling methods.”
Lister said Hydro One, which serves about four million people, also wants to improve communication with customers through its call centres.
Prior to the creation of Hydro One in 1999, Ontario Hydro employed customer service staff in small communities where it provides power across Ontario. Now Hydro One contracts the French multinational Capgemini, operating in Ontario as Inergi LP, which employs 400 people who answer Hydro One customer calls at two call centres: in Markham and London, Ont. Hydro One does not serve customers in either community.
Lister, who is not himself a Hydro One customer, said the problem often is that the people answering Hydro One calls have no authority to resolve customer issues.
“How do we train the agents so they have the authority to make some decisions?” asks Lister. “They could work with customers to find the right installment program for them.”
Carol Paranuik, a customer in Madoc Township in eastern Ontario struggling with crippling electricity bills, said she would welcome some improvement in customer service.
“If they could make an actual Hydro One employee available when someone calls, that would help a lot,” she said. Her husband, Dave Paranuik, spent his career as a customer service representative for what was Ontario Hydro in Tweed, Ont., an office that is now shuttered.
“Dave used to answer all the calls,” she said. “That was something that really upset people when they closed all the local offices and went to this big central office in Toronto. They don’t know what customers are dealing with.”
Paranuik said she welcomed the bill redesign, but noted, “I don’t have any trouble reading my bill.” Her problem is with the charge at the bottom of the bill: The retired couple, who live in a modest brick bungalow, pay on average more than $500 a month for electricity.
Overall, one study shows that Hydro One’s distribution charge, the portion of the bill over which Hydro One had control, has doubled in the past decade, compared to a rise of only 16 per cent, about the rate of inflation, for customers in Ontario who get power from other distribution companies.
Lister said Hydro One has hired BEworks Inc., a Toronto-based behavioural diagnostics firm, to help with the bill redesign. “How do people read their bill? What words to we need to use? Which diagrams do we use to help people understand?,” he said of the questions they want answered.
Daffyd Roderick, a Hydro One spokesman, added, “Right now when you look at the bill, it goes to the fourth decimal point, so it looks like an algebra equation. That’s not particularly customer-friendly.”
Hydro One can also shave money off the costs of customer service by encouraging people to receive bills and interact with Hydro One on the Internet, Lister said. He noted that Hydro One last redesigned its website eight years ago.
“Within the customer service department, I am projecting the cost to service customers to go down slightly over the next five years,” he said.
“In one to three years you will see a significant change,” he said. “We got the shoulder behind the wheel right now, trying to get the momentum. The reason I am here is I love a challenge. I think there is a lot of opportunity within this organization to get better, stronger, fitter.”