Customer Service team proud to be your first call
The mission of the Customer Service Department for the City of The Colony is simple. Identify your problem and help you solve it. The nine-member team receives countless calls in a given day regarding a variety of issues but one directive remains constant no matter the concern.
“If a resident is on the line or in the lobby, it’s an absolute priority,” said Molly Owczar, Director of Customer Services. “You’ve called or come by City Hall for a reason. You need an answer so that’s what we focus on: getting that answer immediately.”
They may not have that answer at their fingertips but they will get you in touch with someone who does as soon as possible.
“We generally get them connected to the right person at that moment. Very rarely do we have to take a number and get back to a customer,” Owczar said.
At one time in its history, The Colony had separate departments for utility billing and permitting. About five years ago, however, the two departments were merged to form one, unified Customer Service Department.
Owczar joined the city right around that time. She has been the only Director of Customer Services the city has known. Among her first priorities after becoming director was to review and update existing policies and procedures to make sure they were customer friendly as well as business friendly. Part of those ongoing updates included cross-training all staff to handle any request at any window in the City Hall lobby so customers never need to switch counters if they have more than one service need.
Whatever it may be, Owczar and her staff relish their role as one of the most forward-facing departments in the city.
“Given the daily interaction we have with our residents, for many we are the face of the city,” she said. “Our specialties are utility billing and permitting but we have to know a little bit about everything. We deal with every department in the city at some level.”
Yes, most of their work revolves around assisting customers with their water bills. But they also process many other frequent requests such as garage sale permits, special event permits, sign permits, food-handler cards for food establishment employees, and landfill passes, to name a few.
In 2016, for example, the department issued over 3,000 permits of all kinds. The same as each counter in the City Hall lobby, applications for these permits are available in one spot on the city website.
The key to maintaining a high level of service is to be proactive, not reactive, Owczar said. Most of the staff members have years of experience but any new hire goes through a rigorous training program managed by Owczar and Supervisor Patsy Grimsley that involves shadowing and constant feedback.
It may sound simple but the most important skill a Customer Service employee learns in their training is the art of listening.
“We never want to reply with a readied response or come across as abrasive,” Owczar said. “It’s really just common sense. Treat people how you’d expect to be treated.”
As a result, Owczar estimates they receive more compliments from customers than complaints. Feedback from contractors requesting permits has also been positive, noting the team’s overall responsiveness and efficiency.
Even residents moving away from the community have made a point to reach out before they left.
“Sometimes a resident who is moving will call us or send us an email to say goodbye, which I think is really nice,” Owczar said. “Or, they’ll call just to thank us for everything we’ve done for them since they’ve been here. It’s nice they even thought of us before they left.”
Sometimes staff will even help out residents or businesses from other cities if possible. For example, the nearby Castle Hills area shares a zip code with The Colony, and Customer Service often gets calls from businesses in that area regarding permits. Rather than turn them away outright, staff keeps a list of relevant phone numbers handy so the caller’s next call is the right one.
Owczar also noted that Grimsley is particularly adept at assisting some of the community’s elderly customers.
“People sometimes come in and think they can get their driver’s license or vehicle registration renewed at City Hall, which they can’t,” Owczar said. “But if time allows, Patsy will take the time out of her day, help them go online and renew their documents for them. She’s even gone out and helped them to their car.
“We want to go above and beyond. This is about providing our taxpayers with the best service possible. If we can help them, we will.”
Rather than view these responsibilities as a weight, the Customer Service team embraces them as a badge of honor. “When customers walk in the door, that we are the ones who get to take care of them is an honorable position to have,” Owczar said.
Although the city provides a variety of payment options that can save them the trip, there are many customers that still choose to pay their water bills in person at City Hall.
“Over time we develop personal relationships with many of our customers,” Owczar said. “Some will come in, stand at the counter and shoot the breeze with us. We know their children or their family. We feel very much a part of the community.”
The hardest part of the job is when they have to process disconnections of water service for outstanding account balances. It happens every week. Currently, a disconnect takes place when a customer is one week past due on their second unpaid water bill.
Owczar stressed that it’s important for residents having trouble paying their bill to contact the Customer Service team as soon as possible, rather than letting their account lapse.
“If they can’t pay, as long as they call us the day before the disconnection date, we can try to make arrangements,” she said. “Depending on the circumstances, we might be able break up the balance or give them some extended time so they don’t have an interruption in service.”
Starting in the first quarter of 2018, the process will change where disconnects will occur after only one bill past due. The reasoning behind that change is because, as things are now, whenever a customer is disconnected they have to pay the full balance (two bills), a $20 disconnect fee, plus a possible increase in their deposit up to $100. Moving toward a one-bill disconnect process is meant to minimize accruing large balances.
Another recent policy change already in practice allows residents multiple extensions to pay their bill over a 12-month period. Previously customers were allowed only two extensions per year.
“We do not come here in the mornings every day to see how many people’s water we can disconnect. Our goal is simply to collect the money for service used by a resident or business,” Owczar said.
Another goal is to educate customers about their water usage in the hopes of minimizing the amount they owe. The department publishes a wealth of information about sprinkler use, swimming pools, plumbing leaks, and more.
“Water conservation is usually the main topic of my talks with the students who visit City Hall on school tours,” Owczar said. “Even though they’re kids, I give them handouts about water-usage facts. I try to teach them about how many gallons of water you’ll use on average if you run the tap while brushing your teeth, that sort of thing. Hopefully these are things they can go home and talk about at dinner with their family.”
At the end of each day, Owczar hopes she and her staff members fulfilled the city’s mission to provide quality, compassionate service.
“Based on talking to residents who have moved here or talking to other cities and reviewing their policies, I believe we’re achieving that goal,” she said. “This city as a whole is unique. It starts from the top down, with City Manager Troy Powell and Assistant City Manager Tim Miller. They set the tone by defining our core values. We strive to exemplify those values and be customer-focused 24/7, 365.”