Irvine Ranch Water District
In the months leading up to “Go Live”, where customers will start being billed on the BBR structure, a strong outreach campaign is recommended. This serves a dual purpose by informing customers of what is coming and aids in acquiring additional data to refine each allocation before they become effective. This can help minimize the Post Go Live workload. A strategic outreach plan will help guide the customers through the process each step of the way, informing them and priming them for what to expect next. A vital component of the outreach is to generate test bills for each customer. Test bills ascertain the impact to customers prior to Go Live giving staff an opportunity to reach out to over-allocation customers to offer assistance before the allocations take effect.
Below are tips and tools that can facilitate customer outreach relative to BBRs:
Test Bills: A comparison of each customer’s actual usage for a selected month with an “As-If” assuming they had been on the allocation based rates at that time will help focus outreach efforts and ensure the billing system is calculating the rates accurately. The test bills are not sent out to the customers lest they mistake them for actual bills and try to pay them. Depending on the climate and other factors in your service area, it is usually best to select a month in the fall to run the as-if scenarios. October is typically a good month to identify over-allocation use. It is still hot and many people continue to irrigate as though it were summer time but the daylight is waning and ET is dropping. Data from the test bills can be merged into customer specific outreach letters or simply used to identify which customers to target with outreach efforts. Targeted letters are used to inform customers that they may be over-allocation when the new rate structure becomes effective and encourages them to seek assistance from Water Efficiency staff or complete a variance form.
Staff Resources: It is vital to have adequate resources to assist customers with the Pre and Post Go Live phases but also to review the rate calculations and coordinate with the IT team who are making the changes to the billing system. Allow ample time and resources dedicated to testing the new rate calculations for all customer types and billing scenarios. Time is well spent on this task when it prevents billing errors in the Post Go Live phase. Post Go Live billing errors will erode customer confidence in the agency and may bring the whole rate structure into question in the customer’s mind. Test and verify the rate calculations and then test them again.
Pre Go Live outreach is essential. Staff can provide one-on-one customer assistance at the customer’s home or business site to perform water audits, collect additional variance data, and verify landscape measurements. The appreciation from the customer for these services cannot be understated. On-site customer assistance provides an opportunity to determine the potential cause of pending over-allocation use based on the test bill data, and to answer customer questions about the new rate structure so that they start off on the right foot with a full understanding of how the allocations work and what they can do to ensure they stay under-allocation.
Communication Channels: Depending on the size of your agency, another useful tool for transitioning customers to allocation based rates, is a dedicated hotline and/or email account. Having dedicated communication channels reduces call wait times and response times. Long wait times can aggravate customers who are already upset about receiving a high water bill.
Customer Resources and Rate Calculator: A special website that is easy to find can be used to house all materials used in the rate transition such as outreach letters, flyers, and Proposition 218 notices. Another unique resource for customers is an online calculator that enables customers to see how much their bill would cost with differing volumes of use throughout different times of the year. See Rate or Allocation Calculators for examples.
Grace Period – Uniform Rate Maintenance: Customers who cannot be reached before the go live date, customers who continue to have high water use but are working with staff, or customers who will have exceptionally expensive bills once the transition to BBRs is made may be kept on a uniform rate for a short period after BBRs go live. This short term solution can be employed to allow agencies more time to ease customers onto the new rates without a negative experience due to unreasonably expensive bills.
Customer Service: Internal Training
Staff training is critical for a successful transition to BBRs. As new staff is brought on board they are thoroughly trained on the BBR structure and provided with a reference manual. Having “special forces” in customer service with advanced training ensures that customers are getting the right answers to their questions and that appropriate support is provided to assist customers in reducing water use. A key component of customer service is responding to requests for bill adjustments – knowing when and how an adjustment can be made.
CVWD provided employees giving public presentations and staff answering customer questions with talking points covering information about BBRs and budgets. The material below is from IRWD’s Water Efficiency Staff Training Manual. An example of internal staff training informational material is here :
1. Have “special forces” in customer service with advanced training:
- It’s important to ensure you have a sufficient amount of staff to respond to phone calls.
- Customer Service is the first responder to most calls and have been trained to walk customers through basic trouble-shooting and rule out the most common things that may cause high water use that falls within the over allocation tiers.
- Water Efficiency field staff have been trained to provide more advanced trouble-shooting with customers over the phone and are trained to perform indoor and outdoor Free Home Check Ups.
- As changes are made to the rate structure it is important to update all staff with upcoming changes so that they are knowledgeable when receiving incoming calls and able to better assist the customer.
- Partners/contractors like Master Gardeners and WaterWise should be educated on BBRs as well, as they will be assisting our customers with projects and changes to the home to reduce water use.
2. Have something to offer customers to help (audits, tips on conservation, etc.):
- Free Home Check Ups
- Customer online training tool: http://rightscapenow.com/training-center
- RightScape microsite: http://rightscapenow.com/
- Online bill calculator:
- Residential water rates page: http://www.irwd.com/services/residential-water-rates
- WaterSmart reports
- Outreach phone calls
3. Policies for bill adjustments (referencing sections in 2015 Rules and Regulations):
- Billing Errors: In the event of discovery of an error in the computation of charges, crossed meters, unbilled meters, or other error, a retroactive adjustment of the charges will be made by means of a credit or additional charge to the next bill, to the extent the District determines it has information from which the correct amount can be ascertained.
- Variance Adjustment: Residential If a variance is approved as provided in Section 12.6.2, a retroactive adjustment of the charges to the customer may be made for no more than three months prior to the variance effective date if the District determines a retroactive adjustment is warranted in accordance with the variance request and the proof submitted by the customer.
- Increase of Nonresidential Landscape or Base Index: If a nonresidential customer’s base index or landscape acreage is increased as provided in Section 12.6.4, a retroactive adjustment of the charges may be made for no more than six months prior to the effective date of the increase if the District determines a retroactive adjustment is warranted in accordance with the increase request and the proof submitted by the customer.
- Residential Landscape Adjustments: The District will authorize a retroactive adjustment of no more than three months for the purpose of establishing new landscape if the District determines a retroactive adjustment is warranted in accordance with the proof submitted by the customer. Training shall be completed if required under Section 12.7.8.
- Leak Repair Adjustments: Grounds – The IRWD BBR structure is intended to serve as a warning sign to alert customers to possible water waste, such as a leak, by charging over- allocation at the “Inefficient”, and “Wasteful” tiers. When an adjustment is made for a repaired leak, the excess units of water attributed to the leak and billed in the “Inefficient”, or “Wasteful” tiers are re-billed at the “Base Rate”. When a customer has a leak repaired, and usage after the repair is within the customer’s allocation, the District will authorize an adjustment, for residential customers, of no more than two bills affected by the leak. The District may, at its discretion, authorize additional bill adjustments on a case by case basis for customers who encounter circumstances that cause delays to a leak repair. The customer is required to contact the District within two months of completing the repair of the leak in order to receive a leak adjustment. Training shall be completed if required under Section 12.7.8.
- Nonresidential Landscape Adjustments:
i. To be eligible for adjustment, an over-allocation charge on a single bill must exceed the minimum amount specified in the landscape irrigation adjustment form instructions.
ii. Mainline breaks and leaks are eligible for adjustment.
iii. Other non-residential landscape adjustments shall be made on a case-by-case basis at the District’s discretion, based on the request and supporting documentation submitted by the customer.
iv. Adjustment requests shall be submitted via an IRWD landscape irrigation adjustment form. Training shall be completed if required under Section 12.7.8.
- Courtesy Adjustments for Residential and Nonresidential Customers: An adjustment of charges not otherwise provided for in this Section 12.7 may be authorized by the District as a courtesy adjustment for special circumstances determined on a case-by-case basis. A courtesy adjustment may include up to, but no more than six months of charges, and no more than one courtesy adjustment will be authorized within a 12-month period.
- Training Requirement for Adjustments: For billing adjustments made under 12.7.4, 12.7.5, and 12.7.6, the District, at its discretion, may require the customer to complete a free water use efficiency training session offered or provided by the District, in order to receive the billing adjustment.
4. Appeal process
a. Staff should discuss any customer appeals with upper management and work to seek resolution. Customers may write a letter to the Board if they wish to appeal.