One of the benefits one gets to enjoy when living abroad is the good customer service given by government agencies and similar utilities like telcos, water and power utilities. In Sydney, where I am based, the local telco and power utility has been privatised leaving the water utility still being publicly owned. But regardless of whether its public or privately owned, I can rely on the same good customer service provided by government agencies to serve me in my needs. In the Philippines, it is common knowledge, customer service at the government level is virtually non-existent. So, one would expect the privatised telcos and other utilities would do better. For telcos, probably the intense competition has brought the service to be better than those days when it was a PLDT monopoly. However, no significant improvement has been observed from the water utilities. It appears even if the utility is managed by among the best of Philippine business (the water utility mentioned in this article is majority owned and managed by Ayala Corporation), the level of their customer service is still no better than what one can expect from a government agency. What gives? I would like to believe its partly the lack of government regulation to require them to provide for an adequate level of customer service. Of course, the other reason is nature of the business culture present having a lack of competition as these are business monopolies. Nevertheless, I was hoping a private company and one as good as Ayala can make it a difference by showing it can provide better level customer service inspite of these circumstances. Let’s see how we can help them make this happen.
From BusinessWorld Philippines
January 06, 2015
The public deserves better service from utility firms…and the government
ON NEW YEAR’S EVE I went home to unusually weak or low water pressure. There was water from the tap, but the pressure was not strong enough to serve beyond the ground floor. Come New Year’s Day water pressure was still low. And by the day after the tap was dry, and it remained dry for almost 48 hours.
Come Sunday evening, as the long holiday weekend came to an end, water service resumed but pressure was still weak. However, there was enough juice from the tap to allow people to fill up pails and other water containers in preparation for the next day, the first official working day of the year 2015.
By Monday late afternoon, however, water service and pressure were back to normal. Until pressure temporarily weakened anew come Tuesday mid-morning. As of this writing yesterday, service and pressure seemed to have stabilized — but this was six days since the “issue” started on New Year’s Eve. And over this six-day period, I had called the water utility’s customer hotline twice to inquire about status and resolution.
But despite those two calls, which were presumably recorded, I have not received clarity as to the what, how and why of the problem. In short, the hotline did not seem to know what the specific problem was and when it would be resolved. Although they knew where the problem was — the barangay in Makati City where the Vice-President resides.
In fact, on the second call to the hotline, my contact number was even requested on the promise that I will be contacted or called through my home phone to be informed of the details of the problem and the timeline for resolution. To date, I have not received the promised call. Not even a flyer or an announcement regarding the interrupted water service.
This is considering that my water bill was delivered on Jan. 2, three days after the problem started, and not even a note with the bill to explain the issue. It was somewhat insensitive, in my opinion, to bill a customer at a time when service was interrupted. Worse, service was interrupted and billing came amid news reports that water prices will go up by February.
The rate increase was in light of foreign currency differential adjustments (FCDA) that will be reflected on customers’ bills starting next month. The FCDA is a mechanism that allows water utilities “to recover or compensate for fluctuations…in foreign exchange rates.” Gains and losses can arise from their payment of concession loans and foreign currency-denominated borrowings used to improve services.
And then yesterday, there was also news that water customers could expect another price increase with the conclusion of one utility’s dispute with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) that took over a year to resolve through arbitration. The higher rate, I believe, is to cover the period 2013-2017.
Frankly, as a water customer, I don’t mind paying more to get efficient service. I also understand the need for water utilities to recover investments and to earn profits from business. Also, I realize the possibility of occasional accidents or unforeseen troubles that can result in interrupted service.
What I cannot understand, however, is the lack of information — intentional or otherwise — to customers. Two calls to the customer hotline were for naught. Even the promise of information via phone call never came. Lack of information prevents customers from anticipating and properly planning for interrupted service. Another water utility is expecting within the year a similar resolution of a pending rate dispute.
My problem with water service now is no different from my experience last year with a telecommunication utility for interrupted Internet service. No information came to customers precisely because even the customer hotline was down during the service interruption. Worse, customers were advised to “e-mail” the company for information. But how could we if we had not Internet service?
But then, perhaps it should not surprise us that utilities choose to deal with customers in a seemingly dismissive way. In the case of water service, for instance, one does not really have a choice since service supplier is determined primarily by the location of one’s residence. It is not as if customers have several choices in every location.
The actual service is not the issue here — far from it, in fact. Other than the rare occasion of interrupted service, I have been happy with my water and Internet services. However, in my opinion, the true quality of service is measured best during crisis periods. It makes a big difference to customers how utilities act toward them, particularly during times of troubles.
It appears that in general, the level of service quality in this country, particularly from utilities, leaves lots to be desired. This is unsurprising, perhaps, considering that even public service quality is just as horrible if not worse. Just ask commuters who ride the Metro Rail Transit or the Philippine National Railways.
This being the case, how then can people bring to the government their grievances over poor customer services in the private sector if the government itself cannot deliver the most basic of services with efficiency? Can the government even be expected to effectively regulate privately owned utilities so as to promote and protect consumer interest?
Sadly, instead of bringing out the best in private utilities — and the government — crises appear to have revealed just the opposite.
Marvin Tort is a former Managing Editor of BusinessWorld, and former chariman of the Philippine Press Council.
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