Customer service representatives inside San Diego’s Water Department are not adequately trained on computer programs, were not given clear guidelines on how to deal with customer complaints, and were not given performance measures, according to a review by San Diego’s City Auditor.
The report, released on June 4, says the inefficiencies have resulted in what has become a “highly reactive” work environment.
And while the report shows the problems that water customers faced when calling the department with billing and other complaints, the call for better leadership inside the troubled water department is nothing new.
“There are a lot of good people that work there that want to help customers,” said 36-year department employee and supervisor Tony Leyva in an exclusive interview with NBC 7 Responds and media partner Voice of San Diego. “[Managers], however, put up roadblocks and processes that were just not well thought out.”
Over the last year, there have been numerous staffing changes within the department. Two weeks ago, the city announced the hiring of a new Public Utilities Department Director after the former director resigned in 2018.
NBC 7’s nearly two-year-long investigation into the department showed numerous complaints focused on the call center.
“I immediately called [about the high water bill] and they tried to tell me that it’s just the way it is, that I must have a leak,” said Rancho Bernardo resident Maria Villegas who after contacting NBC 7 Responds was refunded more than $1400 for water overcharges.
“She would hang up on me. She would yell at me. She would talk over me,” said homeowner Ashley Hennesse after customer representatives from the water department accused her of trying to use someone else’s bank account to pay her bill.
The department later admitted to NBC 7 Responds and Hennesse that it was an internal mistake, however, only after turning the case over to the City Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
But according to the auditor’s report, it was a lack of supervision from management and inadequate training that accounted for the subpar service from the call center.
“We found that [call center representatives] lack autonomy to address customer concerns and that [department managers] needs to provide guidance to staff on how to properly categorize the reasons for calls in the call system,” reads the audit report.
Auditors also found a lack of “communication between sections responsible for handling customer requests and cross-training is infrequent,” despite staff members requests.
In addition, auditors also found that half of the employees are trained on the computer programs necessary to do their job.
PUD uses only approximately half of the available products to varying degrees, has limited policies and procedures, and has not provided ongoing staff training to safeguard system knowledge for future users.
Leyva, the former department employee who is now suing the city for firing him after he says he began raising concerns about leadership, says employees have been used as scapegoats.
“We provide a life-sustaining resource to folks,” said Leyva. “To be able to provide good customer service employees have to be provided with good internal [support]. That has not happened for years.”
NBC 7 Responds and media partner Voice of San Diego’s investigation was at the center of a 30-minute special titled “Flood of Distrust: San Diego’s Troubled Water Department.” To watch that special, click here.