For Walter W. “Wally “Haase, becoming the general manager ten years ago of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority meant tackling issues little known to him and to the rest of public power. With a vast and imposing physical landscape inhabited largely by impoverished citizens, the Navajo Nation needed greatly expanded and more reliable utility services. With help from the staff of Hometown Connections, Haase, the NTUA Management Board, and employees at NTUA are organizing their effort to improve the community around a program to improve the utility customer experience.
The utility services subsidiary of the American Public Power Association, Hometown Connections provides management consulting support in the areas of customer service, organization assessment, strategic planning, governance, market research, and staffing. In addition, Hometown Connections provides discounted pricing on technology, services, and other solutions from industry-leading companies.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is the largest multi-service utility owned and operated by a Native American tribe. NTUA provides electricity, water, wastewater, natural gas, and off-grid residential power to 186,5000 citizens spread across the greater 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southwestern Utah. NTUA also delivers Internet, cell phone, and data storage services.
Navajo Nation statistics illuminate the stark challenges NTUA is facing:
- Unemployment rate of 48.5% (9 times current U.S. average)
- 38% of Navajo people live below poverty line, with average per capita income of $10,695 vs U.S. average of $48,377.
- 31% of all homes lack plumbing, 28% lack kitchens, 38% lack water, 32% lack electricity, 86% lack natural gas, 60% lack landline phone services
“As the 2017/18 Chair of the American Public Power Association, I am a champion of Public Power Forward,” Wally Haase said. “This is a strategic initiative to help public power utilities tackle grid modernization, enhanced retail services, distributed energy resources, new business partnerships, and rate designs. Simply put, to me, Public Power Forward means getting involved in our communities and making a difference in the lives of the people we serve.”
While general manager of the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities in New York, Haase brought in Hometown Connections chief executive Tim Blodgett to facilitate the development of a long-term strategic plan. “For Jamestown BPU, Hometown’s approach to strategic planning was right on target,” Haase said. “However, because NTUA is a multi-service utility with a young staff, I asked Hometown to create a different consulting product for us. Tim and his colleague, Steve VanderMeer, are helping guide NTUA’s Customer Experience Initiative (CEI) and develop a new utility culture devoted to improving customer service and reliability.”
A long-term project operating through a series of waves, CEI began with NTUA management organizing two teams of employees to identify areas of continuous improvement within the customer experience. Team members represent all of the utility’s district offices and departments. The CEI teams secure approval from management for program areas to address and then report back on their progress.
During CEI’s first wave of activity, the utility settled on several areas needing improvement—information exchange among the staff, connecting new customers, and procedures for billing/collections and connects/disconnects. Currently, with Wave 2 underway, the utility is focusing on outage response and work order processes.
“Because the district offices are located far apart from each other, NTUA had developed a culture in which managers handled training and operations through independent silos of information and decision-making,” Haase said. “This led to inconsistent experience for our customers. To help us develop a cooperative culture, Tim and Steve of Hometown Connections are facilitating discussions through which our CEI teams learn how to improve communications, consistency, and accountability.”
While Hometown Connections is helping NTUA develop implementation and business process plans for the first two waves of the CEI program, Haase is encouraging the development of many more waves of improvement efforts. “With Hometown’s help, we are committed to enhancing NTUA’s organizational dynamics and to mentor our staff in ways that will enable each and every one of our 750 employees to reach their potential. The better we perform, the better we will deliver the level of service and reliability our customers need and deserve.”Hometown Connections believes that for any customer service improvement effort to succeed, everyone must believe in adopting a culture of customer service across the enterprise. All employees and governing officials should see themselves as central to the delivery of excellent service and become enthusiastic agents of change. Haase noted, “Prior to working with the Hometown Connections staff, customer service training did not really take here at NTUA. But today, because they are independent advisors with experience working with hundreds of public power utilities, Tim and Steve are helping our teams feel comfortable and buy in to why and how we need to improve our customer services across the board.”
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Navajo Tribal Utility Authority
President & Chief Executive Officer
Senior Vice President, Planning & Marketing