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People-first approach key to outstanding customer service

When it comes to providing outstanding customer service, customers’ needs are key, but one Victorian utility recently recognised internationally for its excellence in this area says success comes down to putting people first, including internal employees.

In 2022, Yarra Valley Water’s customer service center was recognised on the world stage when the utility won the International Service Excellence award – an accolade bestowed on businesses that display the highest standard of customer service.

Hosted by the Customer Service Institute of America, the awards are judged by an international panel against international standards and require extensive applications, interviews, evidence and presentations.

Yarra Valley Water Managing Director Pat McCafferty said the utility’s customer-service success comes down to its dedication to investing in its people.

“It’s a real honour to be recognised at a global level for our customer service. This award is a reflection of the hard work the frontline team puts in every single day to make sure our customers have a good experience. Our people are critical to our success,” he said.

Yarra Valley Water Customer Service Divisional Manager Michelle Hillman said the people-first approach also extends to customers, with the utility striving to ensure communities are consistently happy with the services provided.

“We may be a monopoly, but we absolutely take the approach that if our customers had the choice, they’d pick us. So that’s how we conduct ourselves. It’s not a situation that we take for granted, by any stretch, and we always want to make sure we are delivering service excellence,” she said.

“We work very hard to keep our bills affordable through the work that we do. That ultimately leads us to be able to create a happier and healthier community that’s more prosperous as well, and to make sure that no one in the community is left behind.”

People first

While Yarra Valley Water’s people-first approach places equal focus on employees and customers, Hillman said nurturing and supporting the customer service team helps to create a workplace environment where everybody can do their best.

“We are always looking out for future team members who align with our values, but we also make sure we are establishing a working environment where everybody can make the most of their unique skill set,” she said.

“We have a high level of internal opportunities through promotions or secondments, and we focus on our team members’ development, whether that’s through supporting certain roles or training. If our staff are happy, it ensures that our customers will be well looked after, as well.

“People have all sorts of different requirements and needs, and we want them to feel seen and heard and included – both our employees and our customers.”

Hillman said the utility is incredibly proud and grateful for the work its employees do when they are looking after customers on the phone, and have set up a system to help them feel the love – bolstering pride in work and workplace satisfaction with recorded feedback.

“We have customer satisfaction surveys conducted by an external firm, but we also have internal post-call surveys, where people can leave immediate feedback after a conversation with a voice recording,” she said.

“There is often really beautiful feedback and we share those verbatim with our team members. Positive feedback doesn't get more tangible than when you have the voice of the customer talking about the wonderful experience they have had with you. It’s very motivating.”

Adapting to customers’ needs

Aside from looking after its employees, Hillman said Yarra Valley Water dedicates an entire pillar of its three-pronged organisational strategy to customers, with a key focus on adapting to customers' ever-evolving needs.

“When we talk about customer centricity, we mean that our customers are at the heart of everything we do. We only exist to serve our customers; if it weren't for them we wouldn't have a platform to do great things,” she said.

“Our customers are one of our three key pillars within our organisational strategy as well, which is founded on customers, communities and the environment. Our customer pillar is called ‘transforming around the customer’.”

Hillman said ‘transforming around the customer’ is all about ensuring YVW continues to adapt and evolve with customers' changing needs to ensure continuous improvement and a standard of service delivery they expect.

“We need to keep up to date with our customers' needs. Their needs may demand a different type of interaction with us in the future, depending on what type of technology is developed, as well as different demographics,” she said.

“We involve them in our research process. We conduct citizens juries, to make sure they are part of the direction we are heading in as a business. This is about being a proactive and responsible member of our community.

“Our customer’s needs are constantly evolving as their communities change, and we need to be adaptable enough to evolve with them.”

Trying times

Providing consistently excellent customer service is a feat at the best of times, but Hillman said winning the award following a couple of turbulent pandemic years is an achievement the utility is particularly proud of.

“Our team members had been through a lot in the 18 months leading up to our submission. We could not be prouder of our team for the service they provided during the pandemic. They gave an exceptional standard of care to our customers, who had additional needs, as well, due to what they were going through,” she said.

“The pandemic saw a jump in calls to us, particularly from customers who were vulnerable and who needed additional support.

“Our perspective was that everybody has been impacted by COVID. In response we set up a COVID-19 team.”

Hillman said the COVID team had additional tools and products available to assist the community and prevent additional vulnerability.

“The approach was overwhelmingly successful. Feedback from our customers shows that they appreciated the additional support at this time,” she said.

“Our COVID team has actually now evolved into our payment assistance team. While the initial shocks of the pandemic have passed, we recognise that there’s going to be an ongoing need for a specific team to help with vulnerability as the cost of living continues to rise, including inflation and interest rates.”

In terms of helping employees during the pandemic, Hillman said Yarra Valley Water established resilience programs and sent out care packages: “In such unique times we had to think outside of the box to ensure our staff wellbeing was first and foremost. We even did laughter yoga, which was very different, but genuinely hilarious”.

Hillman said it was crucial for YVW to help its own staff get through the period.

“Because they were experiencing their own hardships and then helping our customers with their hardships too,” she said.

“So we created an additional 20 days COVID leave to help our people recover from extended illness, or take the extra time they might need to care for children when schools were shut down.”

Throughout the pandemic, Yarra Valley Water maintained a high level of customer satisfaction (87%) and in some areas improved it, which Hillman said is a direct reflection of ensuring people come first.

“We need to think about our team and our customers on an even footing to make sure that we deliver a successful experience. They have to go hand in hand, or both will suffer,” she said.