Each year, our Customer Care team fields more than 2 million calls. On the other end of the line are customers with problems to be solved or questions to be answered.

In normal times, customers might call to ask about a bill, a recent payment or transferring service after a move. Less frequently, there might be reports of a cat on a pole or a suspected gas leak in a customer’s home. But during the pandemic, we’ve heard from more customers who are having difficulty paying bills.

“We hear how worried they are about paying their bills and how relieved they are that we offer longer payment arrangements and extensions to help them get through this,” said Customer Care Supervisor Maria Sherfield. “We are well-connected with community agencies, so we can intervene and direct them to resources for assistance.”

The Customer Care team has played a critical role in directing customers to financial assistance offered through community agencies. We also help qualified customers sign up for UniSource’s CARES program, which offers discounted service to low-income families.

When calling UniSource Customer Care, customers might hear an abrupt bark of a dog, a child’s voice or the white noise of a television in the background. Like many workers, most of our 100 Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) have been working remotely from their homes since the onset of the pandemic.

“Our team has demonstrated such resiliency,” said Sherfield.  “For the most part, it’s been seamless for our team and our customers.”

Besides answering incoming calls, CSRs respond to an additional 108,000 emails or letters during their regular weekday hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. A small 24/7 team also monitors and responds to questions on social media and handles emergency calls during evenings and weekends. A translation service also allows us to talk to customers in one of more than 200 languages.

Newly hired CSRs must undergo six weeks of intensive training on topics like billing and pricing plans, service orders and programs. The team also receives regular briefings and updates that prepare them to handle just about any call.

“We train them on almost everything because we don’t want to transfer customers to someone else. That’s not good customer service and if we can avoid it, we do,” said Tashonda Betts, Customer Contact Center Manager.

Being a CSR isn’t for everyone. When hiring, UniSource looks for certain qualities in candidates – such as listening and problem-solving skills, patience, courtesy and empathy – to ensure they will be successful.

“Customers usually are not calling to say ‘thank you,’” Betts said. “We know they’re usually upset at the situation, not at us, and we can almost always find a solution. Our CSRs are empowered to do that.”

All of the calls are recorded for quality assurance and monitored by supervisors who can coach CSRs on how best to handle a situation. Notes are kept on every conversation so that any CSR assisting the customer in the future can view the customer’s history.

Working in a call center in any industry is stressful, often resulting in high burnout and turnover rates – sometimes as much as 50 percent. But the turnover rate in UniSource’s Call Center is a mere 5 percent. One team leader has worked there for three decades. When CSRs do leave, it is usually to transfer to another department rather than leaving the company. So what’s the secret?

“It’s our culture. We celebrate our employees and empower them to make decisions that help customers,” said Betts. “As a team, we like to have fun, stay engaged and support each other, even though we’re working remotely rather than together as a team.”

Happy employees translate into happy customers.

A recent post-call survey of customers by J. D. Power rated our Call Center as outstanding with a 9.25 rating for courtesy and an 8.99 rating for empathy on a scale of 0-10, noted Denise Richerson, Director of Customer Services and Programs. Answer times for calls also have significantly improved from just three years ago, with the average customer now waiting just 75 seconds to speak to a representative.

“I am impressed by the professionalism that we have among our team members and very proud of them,” Richerson said.

Sherfield, who has worked in Customer Care for a decade, says the most important part of customer service is being able to connect with customers on a personal level to provide them with an exceptional experience every time. “We keep it human,” she said. “By responding genuinely and sincerely, we encourage customers to not lose hope and faith and to reassure them we can help. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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