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Under fire from angry customers, Water Works GM pledges changes to improve service

Mac Underwood, Birmingham Water Works General Manager. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

Mac Underwood, Birmingham Water Works General Manager. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)
Mac Underwood, Birmingham Water Works General Manager. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

The Birmingham Water Works (BWW) on Tuesday, Feb. 7, acknowledged multiple problems with its billing system that affected an estimated 60,000 customers, but said steps are underway to resolve the issues and enhance services.

The utility has been flooded with calls from angry and frustrated customers who are upset about higher-than-normal bills and endless wait times to reach customer service.

At a press conference this week and in an interview, BWW General Manager Mac Underwood repeatedly “… apologized for any inconvenience our customers may have experienced with our billing system implementation.”

“The anomalies in the system, which have since been corrected, led to greater-than-normal volume in our call center,” Underwood said. “This situation has caused the BWW to think critically about our current systems and how we can better manage customer service going forward.”

The BWW had been hit with “three waves” of customer complaints, beginning in November 2016, Underwood said.

The first was due to the implementation of a new online customer billing system that launched on Nov. 15, 2016.

“Because of technical discrepancies between the old, outdated Otis system and the new SAP-based system, a number of unexpected errors occurred in the transition,” he said, adding that about 35,000 customers were affected.

“As these issues have been discovered, the BWW has worked to immediately resolve them,” he said.

The second wave was a result of higher-than-normal base charges, which increased the bills of and had an impact on about 20,000 customers, he said.

“The new system went live on Nov. 15, 2016, and this coupled with the holidays led to longer billing periods,” Underwood said. “We automatically and programmatically identified the ones that had longer billing periods, and we credited them the access base charge. That was completed Jan. 10, 2017.”

In addition, Jefferson County increased its sewer rates on Oct. 1, 2016, which also led to an increase in some bills, he said.

“Moving forward, the customer’s monthly base charge will be the same every billing period, except in the cases of move-ins and move-outs,” Underwood said.

The third wave of customer complaints was due to meter-reading estimation in January 2017, resulting in water consumption or usage being “improperly estimated with higher-than-normal consumption” and increased bills for about 5,000 customers. Several factors contributed to this, the GM said: “For example, if a customer had a leak during previous month, then the customer’s consumption was estimated higher than normal.”

“We are in the process of reviewing and adjusting customer accounts that were estimated in January 2017,” he said. “All accounts will be properly adjusted by March 1, 2017. Customers should pay their normal bill amounts until the adjustments are complete.”

The increased number of customer calls has taught the BWW some lessons, and the utility is looking to make some changes, Underwood said.

“We’re looking at outsourcing or trying to automate our phone system to handle overflow calls, whether that be via separate call center that handles calls for the BWW or whether that be automating how our customers can get more information on their accounts” via the phone system.

Underwood reiterated that the utility’s goal is to “ensure that every BWW customer is properly billed for water consumed on a monthly basis,” he said. “We also want to maintain adequate computer systems to make timely and accurate decisions to manage the company.”

The Birmingham Water Works serves more than 600,000 people in Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, St. Clair, and Walker counties. Customers are encouraged to report billing issues by calling customer service at 205-244-4000 or visiting bwwb.org (click “Report a Problem”).