Volumes have been written about how to create culture change in organizations, and usually the discussion focuses on top-down strategies. But at electric utility Ameren Missouri, change is a collaborative, grassroots organizational effort, powered by continuous customer feedback and rewarded through corporate incentives and recognition mechanisms. Ameren’s efforts have produced a new culture of accountability and customer focus among its employees.
Ameren Missouri is an electric and gas utility with 1.2 million customers across central and eastern Missouri, including the greater St. Louis area. In 2004, it halted its customer satisfaction survey. Under that system, customers were called one to three months after a customer service event, and managers received their responses on paper in large binders up to three months after a survey was completed. By the time the information reached managers best-equipped to affect change, feedback was old and couldn’t provide actionable insights, guidance for learning or solutions to fix identified problems.
In 2005, Ameren partnered with CMI, a market research firm, to build a new customer feedback program. The program’s goals included producing more timely, accurate and actionable information to act as a driver of culture change in the organization and provide a foundation for learning and development for front-line, customer-facing employees.
The new program would provide statistically valid and quantifiably measurable feedback as well as anecdotal insights from customers. Further, to be seen as credible and useful for learning and improvement, the information had to be available within a short time following customer interaction.
The resulting program is an information-driven customer feedback system called Field Operations Customer Survey (FOCUS), a telephone survey that asks customers to rate performance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive rating. Interviewers also capture verbatim feedback regarding specific experiences.
Ameren delivers customer feedback quickly to managers through a Web-based program called Web Insights Navigator (WIN) that allows managers across the organization to access monthly FOCUS results relevant to their area of responsibility.
Driving Buy-in for Brainstorming
Ameren is a large, regional utility that was created through the 1997 merger of CIPSCO Inc. and Union Electric Co. In addition to the overarching need for an effective customer feedback program, Ameren needed to build a cohesive system so employees could use the same customer feedback metrics to identify customer concerns and areas for improvement.
Ameren invited managers from throughout the organization to participate in an initial brainstorming session to identify areas to be covered by the new FOCUS survey. Managers focused on items they could control and improve through learning or process improvement. They debated the metrics by which quality and performance were measured and continue to do so as metrics evolve to meet changing needs.
Ameren’s decision to make selection of measurement items and metrics a collaborative effort, and to ask for input from those most affected, helped build early enthusiasm for the new program. Organization-wide collaboration encouraged friendly competition, collegiality and free exchange of knowledge and best practices among the managers.
Customer Feedback to Close the Loop
A key to FOCUS is the quick turnaround of customer feedback for each individual operating center, division and senior-level manager. Customers are interviewed within 10 business days of their service event.
“We wanted to be sure the field crew would have a clear memory of the interaction, so it’s incredibly important to capture customer feedback and provide it to our crews as quickly as possible in order to have a real impact,” said Tara Oglesby, manager of customer satisfaction and business optimization at Ameren.
Quarterly meetings provide a forum for managers to close the loop on the FOCUS system by sharing results and discussing improvement strategies. If the organization identifies an issue not already addressed by the survey, managers will discuss solutions, a question will be added to the survey, learning will be implemented, and the issue will be revisited through the WIN system scores the following quarter.
Organization-wide involvement to develop the process and metrics has changed how front-line managers and employees think about feedback results. Now they will evaluate why a score has dropped or whether they are asking the right questions to understand the customer experience. That information has become a learning tool and a reinforcement mechanism, employed by every manager.
Between 2007 – when it was first tracked – and 2011, WIN traffic at Ameren has increased by 50 percent as managers use this information to enhance customer relationships. For example, managers can analyze customers in their district who rated a service experience either very positive or very negative, then review comments from those customers to learn more about the behavior that generated the feedback. Armed with these insights, front-line managers can provide learning initiatives based on the positive as well as the negative. This approach has led to a new awareness that it is equally important to learn what is working as to examine what is not working.
For example, in 2009, Ameren began an initiative to improve customer satisfaction scores for street lighting repairs. Managers were concerned why FOCUS ratings measured on WIN were lower than expected, given the speed and efficiency of repairs. An investigation determined that call center communications and customer expectations were not properly aligned with the service crews’ performance, and the process for informing customers when a repair was completed was flawed. The initiative identified a learning need for call center employees and field crews and for process improvements to make communications easier and more automatic.
Ameren instituted a new learning program for call center employees and service crews. Call center employees were trained to respond to lighting repair inquiries and were given scripts to inform customers to expect their repair within five business days. That change in communications protocol not only set customer expectations, it ensured customer feedback about street light repair is standardized. Additional development and offering the scripts made call center employees more knowledgeable and confident when speaking with customers.
FOCUS customer satisfaction scores on street lighting repairs increased by 15 percent. Today, 93 percent of customers rate their service experience an 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 compared to 77 percent before the process was changed.
Corporate Incentives for Performance
In early 2009, Ameren’s leadership took accountability to a higher level by creating performance incentives. FOCUS scores became the main driver for employee bonuses and key performance indicators (KPI). All front-line employees with direct customer involvement now have a stake in the success of their district. Managers can access WIN and view their scores every month to monitor their potential bonus compensation.
The compensation/KPI component took an already effective program and deepened employees’ involvement to promote a stronger culture of accountability. Early and continuing collaboration with front-line managers ensures employees have a voice in their success and influence over tasks for which they are held accountable.
For example, new service and upgrades are important parts of Ameren’s business. Historically, FOCUS ratings varied tremendously by region, though there weren’t any clear reasons for the inconsistency. Managers tracked the ratings on WIN, discussed the problems at quarterly meetings and then investigated. The investigation revealed a standardized process did not exist to handle new customer service and upgrade requests. Out of many thousands of calls, only a small percentage are requests for new service. Call center employees had little experience with or knowledge about the process and couldn’t easily answer questions or give accurate estimates for how long upgrades and new services requests would take.
Ameren began a program in late 2008 called MPACT to revamp the new service and upgrades process by implementing a year-long learning and development program. A new call center was created to handle new service and upgrades, staffed by specialized representatives. Ameren created specific performance deadlines the call center could give to customers, such as two-day turnaround across all regions and KPIs to deliver that promise.
Performance scores have improved, and Ameren has changed metrics to produce more detailed information. Managers were bumping up against scores in the mid-90s — the percentage of customers who rate the service an 8, 9 or 10. In 2011, Ameren began targeting and rewarding ratings of 9 and 10 as opposed to ratings of 8, 9 or 10 to give the managers an incentive to strive for improvement.
Mike Mabey is vice president of client solutions at CMI, and Richard Mark is senior vice president of Ameren Missouri. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.