These days, I dread calling businesses—utilities, airlines, cable providers, you name it. The inescapable menu maze, multiple prompts (“please enter or say your 37-digit account number”), prying security questions (“what was the make and model of the vehicle in which you lost your virginity?”), only to end up pleading “Rep-re-sen-ta-tive!”—it can be exasperating and often doesn’t get you the information you needed, anyway.
So, when recently I needed to call the Monroe County Water Authority to see how to switch to automatic billing, I was prepared: It was close to noon so I made a sandwich, figuring I could at least eat it while on hold.
I dialed the Water Authority’s main number. It rang three times. Then I heard:
“Thank you for calling the Water Authority. How may I help you?
Confused, I stammered, “Um, oh—is this a real person?”
“Yes, it is,” she said. “How can I help you?”
Not only was she real, friendly, and polite—she answered all my questions. In two minutes, we were done.
I had to find something else to do while eating.
According to the Water Authority’s website, that surprising response to my call was not a fluke. In fact, it’s the Water Authority’s practice to answer every call with a live customer service rep—and to do it within 12 seconds.
Of all possible businesses I wouldn’t have expected the Water Authority—a government-sanctioned monopoly—to be the one providing such welcome and rare customer service.
How do they do it, and why?
A longstanding practice
A couple of weeks after that call, in a conference room at the Water Authority’s headquarters on Norris Drive, I met with Amy Molinari, director of finance and business services, and Felicia Romagnolo, manager of customer services.
“Live reps are not the norm these days,” agreed Molinari. Neither she nor Romagnolo could name another major local business that uses them.
“Our reps hear surprised comments from customers all the time,” Romagnolo told me. “People say: ‘I didn’t expect a real person,’ ‘Oh, my gosh—You’re a real person!’ ‘Thank you for being a real person!’”
Why doesn’t the Water Authority use an automated phone answering service like everyone else? I asked.
“We don’t believe an automated system would be efficient or save us any expense,” said Molinari, “and that’s been our practice since the Authority was established.” The only time they use an automated system, she said, is after business hours.
The county Water Authority, created by the New York in 1950, currently provides water to 188,000 residential and 30,000 commercial customers in Monroe and surrounding counties. (City residents get their water from a separate entity, Rochester Pure Waters District.)
“Using live reps is more efficient,” Molinari continued. “Other companies transfer calls to their various departments. We don’t do that. Our live reps can handle approximately 90 percent of calls from beginning to end without having to be transferred.”
The key to making the system work, she said, is hiring quality people and training them so they can respond to a full range of customer concerns.
Initial training—before a rep ever takes a call—lasts three to four months, explained Romagnolo, who has worked at the Water Authority for 30 years and herself began as a phone rep. But training then continues for a year. “All our reps learn everything,” she said, “from billing questions, property transfers, scheduling meter changes, questions about low- or high-water pressure, and ongoing engineering projects.”
Currently, six full-time reps and one part-timer staff the Water Authority’s phones. Two other employees are trained to help when call volume is high, such as on Mondays—because customer bills arrive on Saturday—and in summer when questions come in about property transfers and lawn repairs.
Turnover is low: Of the six full-timers, one has been there 10 years; the newest, over a year. Customer service reps are paid an hourly rate ranging from $20.06 to $35.44.
Romagnolo provided these additional stats: In 2021, the Water Authority received 96,286 calls, or about 400 each workday. Average wait time: 12 seconds; average call duration: 2 minutes, 4 seconds.
(The Water Authority also provides an online chat box during business hours. There, average wait time is 54 seconds; average chat duration is 13 minutes, 54 seconds.)
All reps work in-house, and I was invited to see them in action.
“Thank you for calling the Water Authority. This is Josh. How can I help you?”
Josh Tiefel wore a headset and sat in a cubicle in a room with five other reps. All were busy talking with customers. On his desk were two large computer monitors.
From hearing Josh’s side of the conversation, I gathered the caller had just bought a house and needed to confirm that the seller had paid the previous water bill.
“OK, I’m pulling up that East Rochester address now,” said Tiefel, studying the monitors. Within seconds, he told the customer the bill had been paid.
“You take care,” Tiefel said, “and I hope you’re enjoying your new home. Thanks for calling.”
Back in the conference room, I asked Molinari if having enough reps to answer calls in 12 seconds adds to the cost that customers pay for water. In the last three years, water rates for residential customers have increased from $3.38 per 1,000 gallons to $3.58.
“Employing nine customer service reps does not have a large impact on water rates,” she said. “And when reps are not answering calls, they’re busy with other tasks, like reviewing billing reports, meter reads, and processing work orders.”
Added Molinari: “We only have 210 employees total. For serving Monroe and surrounding counties, it’s a very lean operation.”
Annual increases in water rates, she added, are “minimal” compared to rate increases for other utilities such as gas and electric, phone, internet, and online streaming.
But given that the Water Authority is a monopoly, why do they even bother with customer service at all?
“The Authority exists because people need water and we want to provide quality service—not just on the phones—but in every aspect of the work: water quality, meter service, the crews fixing water main breaks—all of it.”
In the conference room, a shelf of J.D. Power Awards for customer satisfaction attests to the success of their efforts.
So do testimonials from customers. Romagnolo shared these excerpts from customer survey comments received by email this year:
■ A real person answered my call. A very pleasant experience!
■ I love that knowledgeable MCWA employees answer the main line and resolve issue. I actually look forward to calling the MCWA.
■ It was just a pain free phone call. . . When I called the Water Authority they answered quickly … never put me on hold … and had the answers and explained things quickly and efficiently.
■ MCWA should be in charge of all government and utilities customer service training.
All of which prompted me to ask: Could the Water Authority train RG&E, American Airlines, Spectrum, and other local businesses to answer their calls with well-trained, live reps?
“If anyone would inquire,” said Molinari, “we’d be happy to share our program. So far, no one’s asked.”
How about it, Beacon readers, which local business would you most like to see answer the phone?
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].
Being a dismal scientist by training and profession, I have to wonder whether the experience of the Water Authority could be universally applied. That this is a small operation and the customer service reps are cross trained in other billing tasks suggests that it might not be scalable. Economists have often been called cynics & associated with the Oscar Wilde definition as someone “who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” But a lovely story, Peter, and typical of your ability to weave a Beacon post around a chance occurrence. Thank you!
Peter, great article and it shares everyone’s frustrations dealing with automated call centers. Your first 3 paragraphs had me rolling on the floor laughing! Sandy
That is extremely rare. Not even my doctors office has that courtesy. It’s actually much more than that,…it’s good business! Hear that,…the rest of the business world,…GOOD BUSINESS! What makes the story even more interesting is that the Water Authority has a “captive audience”. That simply means that you can’t get water anywhere else,….you’re stuck with them come hell or high water. (sorry, couldn’t resist) They are the only game in town and still provide a voice service. That is well beyond commendable!! Take notice!!… the rest of our government services and,….my doctors office manager.
Congrats to the Water Authority for not just doing things right,…but doing the right thing.
…and it’s good to know that sometimes, at least, “doing the right thing” IS the right thing.