New Call Center Launches to Address Customers' Utility Billing Issues
(January 15, 2019, Fort Smith, AR) — Beginning 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, January 15, residents using the telephone to get help with their utility bill reached one of six newly-reassigned Utility Department staff members specially-trained to address specific issues arising now after December’s deployment of a new, citywide accounting and billing system. The call center will be open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., to address customers’ needs.
Rather than calling, though, if possible, customers with questions, concerns or needing personal assistance are asked to email email@example.com. This dedicated email address allows an even larger number of staff to address the volume of customer needs and requests, responding individually, with more time and other flexibility as they fulfill other of their job duties.
For those who do call Utility Billing (784-2262), as of today, callers are routed to the expanded staff in the new call center. There are more dedicated phone lines, and staff are focused squarely on answering phone inquiries and meeting customers’ needs related to their new utility bills. If all six new call center operators are busy, overflow calls will spill over to the staff who normally answer utility customer calls and who have been hard-pressed to handle the recent volume and demand while serving the large number of customers who walk in, in person, to be served at the department’s customer windows on Garrison Avenue.
“About half our customers—so we’re talking 17,000 people or more—pay their water bill in person, the old-fashioned way,” said Finance Director Jennifer Walker. “We’ve had six to 10 staff, at any given time, struggling to meet the demands of a sharp and constant call volume and continuous flow of foot traffic, customers face-to-face, while processing mail and other payments, and everything else. It’s been difficult,” she said.
New call center staff can handle any utility customer request but are specially trained to address current recurring customer demands. These fall into four main “buckets:”
- Problems with successfully setting up an online payment account
- Questions and concerns about their water bill
- Questions about payment options
- Service requests
- As of today, every one of the City’s approximately 35,000 customers has been mailed a bill. To the remaining few customers who have not yet received their new water bill: If you do not get your bill by Monday, January 21's mail, please contact Utility Billing by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 784-2262. (Please make sure to check your January 21 mail first, though.)
- Look at your bill. If your bill indicates it is to be paid by automatic draft and you don’t want that to happen, you should email Utility Billing immediately at email@example.com or call 784-2262.
Overlapping the citywide billing software switchover, the Utility Department has long been in the process of replacing hardware—old, aging water meters—in various neighborhoods. The old, outdated meters did not always measure accurately the water used. The new meters are manufactured, calibrated, and tested so they read the exact amount of water usage. Customers surprised by bills that may be significantly different from what they’re used to also have flooded customer service lines, windows, and other service channels.
No matter the issue, City Administration and staff are committed to working in partnership with customers to resolve all problems, concerns, and questions.
“We know there have been some growing pains as we’ve moved to update both our hardware and software,” said City Administrator Carl E. Geffken, “We sincerely apologize for the problems and appreciate people working with us as we work through this.”
“Residents all tried to set up their new accounts at once on the first day the new system was available,” Geffken said, reflecting on the spike in customer service demand. “We’re not sure why that was, but as people encountered difficulty or had questions, they turned to the phones—so many, all at once, that they crashed our telephone provider’s lines a number of times,” he said.
“Of course, customers calling had no way of knowing what was going on—they just knew they couldn’t get an answer or got a recording. That’s maddening! Enormously frustrating! Believe me, it was also frustrating and aggravating for City staff. We leaned on our phone service provider, and now we’ve expanded the number of lines. We think this new call center will help, allowing us to resolve customer issues faster, relieving everyone’s frustration,” Geffken said.
Initial system deployment difficulties have been worked out, Geffken said. The main problem area remaining now is responding to the hundreds of individual requests for assistance regarding setting up a new payment option or answering individual account questions regarding a customer’s bill.
SETTING UP ONLINE PAYMENT
The majority of customers calling and emailing the City have sought individual assistance to help with their account information. To set up online payment, either directly with the city or at the customer’s own financial institution, they must have and must correctly input customer-identifying information about their utility account. The main questions being put to City staff are:
- What is my account number?
- What is the specific name on my account?
Many customers who had signed up for paperless billing and/or auto-pay, either directly with the City or at their financial institution, said they never saw their bill, didn’t know how to access their e-bill, and kept no available records. So, they said, they had no idea what their account info was and no way to get it.
For each personalized inquiry like this—and there have been thousands—City staff have worked individually with the customer, taking their name and address, and looking up the person’s account information for them, replying to the customer’s email to firstname.lastname@example.org or directly over the phone.
EXACT NAME MATCH
Initially, many customers setting up an online account with the City or arranging other automatic draft encountered difficulty when required to provide their name exactly as it appears on their account. Due to the trouble hundreds of customers had with that, our team adjusted the software, dropping the “exact name match” requirement, switching instead to require only the customer/account numbers to match perfectly.
Careful attention also is required when inputting customer and account number fields—the order is reversed and not all digits, such as a series of zeros, are needed and aren’t accepted. Hundreds of customers have needed individual staff assistance to retrieve their customer/account numbers and input the number fields correctly, as instructed.
QUESTIONS ABOUT WATER BILL
Also, for weeks now—since planned changes were announced in mid-late November—customers have flooded phone lines asking questions such as:
- When will I receive my water bill?
- Why have I not received my bill?
- Why is my most recent bill higher than normal?
- Will my water be shut off because I haven’t received a bill?
Each of the City’s approximately 35,000 utility customers received a letter and sample bill in the mail in late November, seeking to explain what customers could expect as the City switched over to a new accounting system and making clear that no customer’s water would be shut off, nor would anyone be assessed a penalty for late payment associated with the switchover. Regardless, social media misinformation and rumors have fueled some customers’ fears, leading them to call or email the City with concerns about late payment, penalties or loss of service.
Again, unequivocally, despite social media disinformation and dead-wrong rumors, no one’s water has been shut off, nor have any penalties been levied to date.
City of Fort Smith Open Data
The City of Fort Smith makes the public data generated by City departments available for public use. Anyone can use these data sets to participate in and improve government by conducting research and analysis or creating applications. The data sets are available in a variety of machine-readable formats and are refreshed when new data becomes available. Data is presented by Department.”
Fort Smith's Bicentennial Book Arrives
Fort Smith’s Bicentennial Book Arrives. Two years in the making, Bridging Borders & Time—A Bicentennial Portrait of Fort Smith, published to commemorate Fort Smith’s historic bicentennial, arrived in time for Christmas. Bridging Borders & Time is both a history and present-day pictorial chronicle of life in our fascinating and historic southwest city. At a whopping 272 pages, this important coffee-table pictorial book is bursting with more than 250 photographs, many of them custom shot to portray Fort Smith life from myriad perspectives. The City of Fort Smith is proud of this important book and wishes to thank the publisher, Bookhouse Group, for their considerable effort producing this superb publication. Bookhouse Group, a custom book publishing specialist, creates picture books about American cities, commemorative and anniversary books, company histories and others.
The City of Fort Smith wants to notify all residents to be aware of scams and individuals posing as reputable and qualified contractors. The recent hail storm disaster may unfortunately bring disreputable persons to the area.
Fort Smith residents should use the following guidelines before hiring a contractor:
• Be cautious of anyone asking for money before doing any work.
• Do not pay for any work that is not done or is not finished.
• Ask for references and CALL the references. Ask about quality of work, similarity of the work and the contractor’s willingness to correct deficiencies in the work.
• Be sure the contractor has a business license with the City of Fort Smith.
• Plumbers, electricians and heating/air conditioning contractors must have an additional license from the State of Arkansas.
• Building permits are required on all work to buildings. This includes roof repairs, siding and interior work. Do not let the contractor start working without a building permit and see that he gets all the required inspections from the City Building Department. Call the City Building Department if you have any questions about permits or inspections.
• Always try to get a specific written agreement that specifies the work and how much money will be paid for the work and when the payments will be due.
• The Fort Smith Police Department advises citizens to always be cautious and protect valuables. Keep doors locked and garage doors closed if not present during repairs. Be cautious and attentive to workers asking for access into your home.
• Please call the City offices if you have any questions.
The numbers to call are:
784-2254 City Collections Department
784-2206 City Building (Code Enforcement) Department
709-5141 Fort Smith Police Department
Wally Bailey, Director of Development Services
Tips for Yielding to Emergency Vehicles
The Fort Smith Fire Department cautions motorists on how to best help emergency vehicles navigate traffic.
As days grow longer and temperatures get higher, more of us will be enjoying outdoor activities. Unfortunately, spring and summer can mean more emergency calls for our first responders.
The Fort Smith Fire Department reminds us all to “do what’s right and yield to the right.“
Captain Carey “Hootie“ St. Cyr says, “We want motorists to keep their ears alert for the wail or yelp of sirens, and an eye in their rear view mirrors for flashing emergency lights. We also want drivers to know exactly what to do, so we’ve prepared some tips that will hopefully be helpful to all of us.“
These tips apply to emergency vehicles approaching from any direction when lights are flashing, sirens are sounding, or horns are honking.
- Pull to the right edge of the road, as much as safely permissible.
- If traffic impedes a motorist from pulling to the right edge of the road, pull as far right as safely possible.
- Follow any directions given from an emergency vehicle’s loudspeaker.
- Do NOT stop abruptly. Use signals, when possible, to communicate your next move.
- Do not ever block an intersection. Either stop short of an intersection if an emergency vehicle is traveling across an intersection as you approach, or proceed carefully through the intersection before pulling to the right if the vehicle is behind you.
- Sit still until ALL emergency vehicles in your line of sight or range of hearing have passed.
Sgt. Daniel Grubbs, Public Affairs Officer for the Fort Smith Police Department says, “Emergency response is a very stressful situation for an officer and first responders. The Fort Smith Police Department’s primary concern in emergency driving situations is the protection of the lives and safety of all citizens and officers. By policy, officers utilizing emergency lights and siren are in direct response to a life-threatening situation, a violent crime in progress, or an officer in distress.“
St. Cyr further explains that emergency vehicles can legally pass through intersections on a red light after they’ve slowed or stopped to make sure lanes are clear. “Emergency vehicles use different techniques to navigate blocked intersection. Don’t ever assume you know which way the vehicle is headed. It’s important to stop safely as soon as possible to give the driver time to assess the situation. Get out of the way if you can.“
“When emergency crews are running toward a citizen in need, we’re trained to get there as quickly as possible, as safely as possible. Seconds matter in situations like this. We know citizens want to help us help others. These tips will go a long way toward keeping all of us safe.“