Despite changes to improve customer service at the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission, customer satisfaction with the utility has dropped by 37 percent since June.

Water and sewer rate-payers can speak to customer service representatives in person and pay bills online, but the customer satisfaction rating is based on rate-payer interactions over the phone, said Jay Sellers, JWSC director of administration.

“We highly value the relationship with our customers, and you’ve heard me say we’re seeking to have that philosophy that we would hope that our customers would choose to do business with us even if we had other options. That’s a difficult thing to say right now because of the high dissatisfaction level,” Sellers said at a utility commission meeting Thursday.

Customer service staff at the front of the JWSC’s office increased to seven earlier this year, but generally no more than five can be present at one time.

The utility received 9,302 calls from January to May this year. Of those, 6,900 were answered, about 74 percent. Customers hung up without speaking to a representative 1,093 times, around 12 percent of all calls.

From June 1 to Wednesday, they received 21,425 calls, 7,683 of which were answered, 36 percent. During this period, customers hung up without talking to a representative around 4,500 times, constituting 21 percent of all calls. The number of voicemails left daily increased by as much as four times on some days.

Since June 1, satisfied customers dropped from 65 percent to 28 percent, Sellers said.

No one person or thing is to blame, Sellers said, and some steps are already being taken to address customers’ complaints.

To help the utility’s customer service staff catch up with processing statements and posting payments to customers’ accounts, he said the utility would be suspending late fees for some customers until Jan. 1, 2018 and not cutting off service to accounts unless they were 90 days past due on paying bills when Hurricane Irma hit or have defaulted on payment plans. That will reduce the amount of work for those preparing bills.

“To our customers, I believe we need to apologize. We’ve made some (changes) that we didn’t calculate the cost on, didn’t calculate the effect of making so many changes at once and we weren’t prepared for those challenges. We didn’t communicate that well up front,” Seller said Thursday.

A water and sewer rate increase which took effect on July 1 likely contributed, he said. The average customer saw an increase of 13 to 14 percent, although Sellers said it would likely have looked like more to some customers.

A change in billing system and a billing period extension due to Irma also likely caused some confusion among rate-payers.

The billing system upgrade was necessary, Sellers said, but caused issues that resulted in some billing errors. Since the utility was not reading meters or preparing bills during the storm, the JWSC extended the billing cycle so customers are getting billed for five weeks instead of four. It resulted in an increase of up to 20 to 25 percent over previous months for some.

The utility started using a new company to process payments made by check recently, which Sellers said may also be a reason the satisfaction rating dropped. Some check payments were posted to accounts later than normal because around 9,000 checks had to be processed by the JWSC while a new service provider took over.

He named more issues, including the online payment limit of $200 per transaction and the removal of useful water usage information from bills, as issues that may also be impacting customers’ satisfaction.

Another major point of annoyance for customers could have been insufficient communication about these changes, Sellers said. Going forward, the JWSC will include information in bills and be more aggressive in getting information out through press releases and social media.

Some of these issues are already sorted out. Checks should be processed on time now, and the usage information should be returning to bills soon, but Sellers said they may have changed too much too fast without giving thought to the impact. He also said they expect call volume to drop when bills for this month begin going out, as they will only cover three weeks of water usage and will balance out the five-week bills sent out in September.

JWSC executive director Jimmy Junkin suggested changing hours so the most staff is present when call volume is highest. Sellers said it would be hard to calculate because calls are very sporadic.

More personnel may help. Sellers said another lead customer service representative and someone else to answer calls could improve responsiveness. Given the JWSC’s financial issues, Sellers said bringing in temporary staff to help get them through this rough patch would be prudent. Sellers expected the commissiom would not be out of the woods until after January.

Sellers also recommended temporarily suspending the $2.75 transaction fee for paying online and increasing the amount of budgeted overtime for customer service employees. Commissioners did not want to cut the transaction fee, however, as it could cost the utility as much as $60,000 a year.

The JWSC commission said these suggestions would be something for the utility’s finance committee to consider first.