WWEMA Forum Focuses on Understanding Customers

WWEMA celebrated its 95th Annual Meeting on November 6-8 in Ponte Vedra, FL. For three days, WWEMA members met in committee, participated in roundtable discussions...

by Dawn C. Kristof, WWEMA President

WWEMA celebrated its 95th Annual Meeting on November 6-8 in Ponte Vedra, FL. For three days, WWEMA members met in committee, participated in roundtable discussions, and attended general sessions, focused on the theme of Creating Customer Confidence.

Customers, we learned, encompass not only the people we "sell" products to, but also the people we "buy" services from – our employees. "Internal" customer service, we were told, could be more critical to the survival of our businesses than anything we do on the outside. Attendees at this year's Annual Meeting took part in a two-hour workshop on Creating Customer Confidence and discovered ways to communicate with, and better serve, their most valuable customers – their employees!

Examples were given during the workshop of best management practices that many of us have read about, but rarely employ in the rush of our daily lives:

Imagine having open access to the CEO of Intel who works in a cubicle like every other employee.

How about Phoenix Textile which replaced that silly "suggestion box" on the wall with an 800 number that its employees can use to anonymously call in their views to management from any remote location, 24 hours a day.

Who wouldn't enjoy working for the president of Paragon Steakhouse who proclaims, "Every day is a good day that I'm above the ground!" He keeps a box of thank you notes on his desk and sends several to his employees each day as part of his "Attitude of Gratitude" philosophy.

Perhaps you've met the CEO of Southwest Airlines who serves coffee to the passengers each time he flies. Amazing examples of service to the customer, both inside and outside the organization.

Creating customer confidence is not a simple task. It begins with a solid understanding of what your customer's needs are. We invited several of our members' customers in the municipal water and wastewater sector to take part on this year's Annual Meeting program and share with us what their needs entail. As one speaker put it, "What keeps me up at night!"

Gene Schiller represented the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Like most local and state governments, SFWMUD is experiencing decreasing tax revenue and increasing demands to build new infrastructure and replace deteriorating systems. He is looking at ways to do things cheaper, better and faster and considers outsourcing and privatization as viable options for many city officials seeking economic growth and community development in the competitive world.

He believes that it is not technical, engineering or scientific reasons limiting the creation of public-private partnerships. It is about people and the need for the private sector to better communicate what it can bring to the table in the form of quality, flexibility, speed, expertise and innovation. In turn, elected and appointed officials need to understand the private sector's need for a reasonable return on investment in an acceptable timeframe.

Scott Kelly from the Jacksonville Electric Authority identified a number of "change drivers" taking placing in the water and wastewater industry, to include expanding regulations, limited water resources, infrastructure gaps, customer demands, security concerns, changing workplace, and automation.

Of equal significance, he noted, was change taking place in technology. JEA now delivers reclaimed water from wastewater reuse systems at three regional sewer plants. It decommissioned a sludge incinerator at one of its water plants, eliminating associated air emissions, and is converting the sludge into a saleable fertilizer product. Reclaimed water systems and biological nutrient removal systems at several regional wastewater treatment plants are helping them meet a 50% reduction goal of nitrogen discharged to St. Johns River. JEA has also saved $85 million in sewer line replacement costs by adopting the innovative trenchless technology called pipe bursting.

Looking to the future, JEA will continue to seek out innovations such as wireless technology and membrane bio-reactors that allow systems to be unmanned and avoiding the cost of having to pump to a centralized plant, while utilizing the effluent as gray water and reclaimed water for irrigation purposes. With Jacksonville hosting the 2005 Super Bowl, technologies that can detect chemical, biological and radiological abnormalities in water and wastewater systems will also be of critical importance to JEA.

Remember the municipal official I mentioned earlier in this article who spoke about what keeps him up at night? It was the one and only Thomas R. "Buddy" Morgan! He delighted our audience with a captivating presentation on the complex issue he deals with as general manger of the Montgomery (Alabama) Water Works and Sanitary Sewer Board . . . from train cars containing methylethylketone derailing into the source water supplying their system, to having to comply with TMDLs (defined as "too many damn lawyers" in Morgan fashion).

He acknowledged that trenchless technology has been among the most advanced technology he had ever seen, considering the fact that the pipe he installed 28 years ago, which should have lasted 50 years, was already deteriorating. He expressed some bewilderment that after having completed their vulnerability assessment and risk management plan, no one even bothered to show up from the public at the three public hearings they held on water security.

But what keeps him up most at night was depicted in a photo he displayed on the screen at the end of his presentation. They were the faces of his two granddaughters. His greatest concern is that he is doing enough as manager of Montgomery's water and wastewater systems to ensure the highest level of protection for his most important "external" customer . . . his family.

With that as a measure of success, the customers of MWWSSB should be confident that they are getting the best value for their dollar.

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