At the Lodi City Council meeting on June 15, council members heard that while residents are generally happy with the Lodi Electric Utility, there is room for improvement.
The biggest concerns from customers revolved around communications and transparency from the utility, and customer service.
“There is a trust in the utility to make good decisions,” said Michael Vigeant, CEO of Great Blue Research, Inc., which was contracted to conduct the surveys on the city’s behalf.
However, both commercial and residential customers expressed that the utility could do a better job of communicating what it does, and expressed that customer service was inconsistent — sometimes good, sometimes very poor.
The firm conducted the survey via telephone and focus groups; they chose not to send out online or mail surveys because respondents to those forms of questions are generally self-selecting and can throw off the ratings, Vigeant said.
For example, he offered a sample of some of the critiques made about customer service during the focus group portions of the survey.
“They need to be reminded that, for them, we’re number 300, but for us it’s the only time we’re having that interaction,” one residential customer said.
Another resident complained that the customer service representatives in the Finance Department have a script that they can’t deviate from, while a business customer said the CSRs aren’t trained well enough to handle the volume of utility customers they see each day.
“It’s very interesting because depending on the reason you’re there, the same exact people will give you different customer service,” another resident noted.
Overall, 49.4 percent of customers were very satisfied with office personnel, while 22.3 percent were somewhat satisfied. However, 19.4 percent said they were very dissatisfied with customer service.
When it came to field personnel, 79.6 percent were either very or somewhat satisfied, the survey found.
However, in other areas, such as affordable pricing and reliability, nearly 70 percent of respondents said the utility was meeting their expectations all or most of the time, Vigeant said. A full 81.2 percent who had experienced an outage in the past 12 years were satisfied with restoration times.
“I think the service itself is pretty good,” one resident said during a focus group. “We don’t get blackouts; the power stays on.” Business customers expressed similar sentiments.
One other “problem area” was solar power, but Vigeant said that it was a complex, technical issue and a lot of residents simply weren’t sure how it worked or what it meant to them.
This is one area communications can improve, he said.
Other areas include restructuring the utility’s website, as important information is often buried several pages in rather than easily accessible, and being more proactive about conversations regarding utility projects and actions.
For example, instead of simply responding to individuals who are concerned about their bills, the utility should be sure to “market” what they do and what customers are receiving for their money, he said.
The council voted 5-0 to accept the report, and directed city staff to begin looking into it.
To that end, Lodi Electric Utility Director Liz Kirkley invited council members to join the utility’s strategic planning advisory board, which would help determine policy direction and priorities for the utility, with citizen input.
Mayor Mark Chandler, who has experience with electric issues as the council’s liaison to the Northern California Power Agency, and Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce will serve on the board.
No citizen’s advisory group at this time
In the final agenda item of the meeting, the council chose to take no action in forming a citizens’ advisory group to meet with the council and Lodi Electric Utility.
Adam Brucker, the city’s business development manager, said that he researched similar utilities and found that only five had advisory groups. Of those, most were not structured the way the group Lodi was considering would be, he said.
For example, in Alameda, the group is a full board separate from the city council, which has taken on the role of running the municipal utility, he said.
Councilmen Alan Nakanishi and Doug Kuehne were concerned that it might take too long for an advisory group to come up to speed enough to actually offer advice.
Kuehne said it took him about two years to learn what he needed to know when it came to water issues in Lodi and San Joaquin County.
“As a result, I know a lot about water now. I say that to preface this statement: It took me a long time to get up to speed,” he said.
Chandler said it took him a similar amount of time to get up to speed on power issues as the NCPA liaison.
And Councilman Bob Johnson wasn’t sure such an advisory board was still needed.
“We had a lot of people who were deeply upset with us, didn’t trust us, and had a lot of problems they wanted to see us address,” he said.
Deputy City Manager Jordan Ayers and Kirkley were already taking steps to address those issues, he said, and he pointed out that none of those with complaints were at the meeting in person.
However, Mounce was concerned that the agenda item regarding the advisory board hadn’t been well-publicized, and it was the last item on the agenda.
“We just heard a really great presentation (from Vigeant) ... that it’s about communication, education, transparency, making sure people understand,” she said.
She felt that an advisory group could be a step in the right direction toward giving Lodi citizens a better idea of how the electric utility works. They don’t have to come to the council every meeting, she said; they could give reports once a year or once a quarter like the Lodi Improvement Committee or Parks and Recreation Commission, she said.
“Then we’re building camaraderie with people who really have no trust in us and our utility,” Mounce said.
“I’d like to stay in tune with our customers, but I don’t see the need for this panel (at this time),” Chandler said.
In the end, the council took no action, though it was left open that the advisory group may return to the table in a year or two if needed.