EBCE started service to half a million East Bay residential customers last fall, but for some the change didn’t sink in until they saw their utility bills. The calls and emails started coming in, and EBCE was ready to respond.
“The questions we get most often are ‘who are you, and why is EBCE on my bill?’” says Kelly Birdwell Brezovec, Customer Care Manager.
Kelly is part of a customer service team that is reaching out to customers across the county, through the “Understanding Your Bill Tour” and other strategies. (See “EBCE Goes On Tour to Meet the Community” in this issue of the newsletter.)
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Kelly comes to EBCE after long stints in customer care at PG&E and Alameda Municipal Power.
At PG&E she managed commercial customers and third-party natural gas suppliers known as core transport agents. She was at PG&E during the horrific San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, where eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed. She was one of many customer care representatives assigned to be a personal contact for people affected by the disaster. It was a formative experience.
“San Bruno was the hardest kind of customer service I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was a deeper level of empathy than one usually needs to have in the energy industry. That experience helped me understand the importance of customer connections.”
She moved on to Alameda Municipal Power, the city-owned utility, where she managed energy efficiency and green power programs. She was originally drawn to the energy world to address the environmental impacts of utilities, after receiving an MBA in sustainability from the Presidio Graduate School.
“I wanted to get back to energy efficiency and sustainability issues,” she says of the move. She also loved the smaller size and community connections at Alameda, which serves only about 35,000 customer accounts.
“That’s a nice thing about a small utility, and it’s the same at EBCE,” she says. “Customers can easily talk to someone at the organization to get answers to their questions. Many customers were delighted and surprised to get a real person on the phone to help them understand the difference between an LED and a compact fluorescent light bulb.”
“You don’t get that level of service from an organization that is not so community-minded.”
She finds the same dynamic at EBCE, even with the larger customer base. “We are working directly with residential customers on understanding their bills,” she says. “We have at least two customers a week who come into the office. We review their bill one-on-one and answer all of their questions about EBCE.”
Customer service at EBCE gets a big boost from a call center operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). SMUD handles a number of “back office” tasks for EBCE, tapping their decades of public power experience. “The customer service team gets the idea of community-owned energy and local control and they are helping our customers understand it,” Brezovec says.
CLEARING UP CONFUSION
While some customers have been confused about their bills, leading to an increase in opt-out rates, Kelly thinks that is a temporary condition. She thinks the main problem is that the residential switchover from PG&E in November coincided with the onset of winter.
“People use more energy in the winter, which results in a higher bill,” she points out. “They then blamed that higher bill on EBCE, not on the amount of energy they used.”
“I think the number of opt-outs will level off in next two or three months, as things warm up and bills get smaller,” she says.
This underscores that a big part of customer care is educating customers about energy.
“I saw a study published in the mid-2000s showing that customers spend an average of six minutes a year thinking about their electricity bill,” she says. “So we are always looking for the best way to explain the overall savings that comes from being an EBCE customer, our generation charges, PG&E’s delivery and how they are related.”
“Alameda County residents and business owners are more aware of climate change than most people and care about helping the planet,” she says. “As a community energy provider, we work with city officials and local groups to educate the public about the importance of clean energy as a tool to fight global warming.”