It sometimes seems like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power specializes in frustration.
In September, the utility flipped the switch on a new $162-million customer information system that had been in the works for three years. The system includes meter reading, billing and customer service, and it replaces a 40-year-old model that was outdated 20 years ago. It's designed to be more efficient and more accurate, let customers resolve inquiries with one call and eventually enable the DWP to switch from bimonthly to monthly bills.
But the rollout has been trying. The system generated a number of inaccurate estimated bills, prompting ratepayers to flood the utility with complaints. That, in turn, overwhelmed the customer service center and resulted in hourlong waits and dropped calls. In the meantime, the system sent out disconnection warnings to customers who couldn't get their disputes resolved.
DWP managers note that only about 3% to 5% of the utility's 1.4 million customers had issues. But some of those problems were extreme: One customer on auto pay had her bank account overdrawn because the incorrect bill was 12 times higher than normal.
Utility managers call this the "shakeout period," a time of glitches and fixes in a new computer system. Fair enough. Rare is the complex system that works perfectly on the first try — consider the rollout of Obamacare — but these struggles should remind the DWP of its already fragile relationship with the public and propel it to do better.
Even before the rollout, customer call center wait times were longer than usual because employees were off the phones training for the transition. That would have been the ideal time to implement an automated callback system so ratepayers wouldn't have to remain on hold waiting for an agent. This week, under pressure from the City Council and mayor, a callback tool finally went live.
The DWP initially suspended collection activities in the first weeks of the rollout as a precaution. But then, despite unresolved problems in the billing system, it resumed collections and unnecessarily scared customers stuck in the vortex of bad bills and nonresponsive customer service. On Monday, the utility announced it would suspend collections through the rest of the year, meaning that nobody will get power switched off because of its mishaps. That's a step in the right direction.