The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, often the target of customers' ire, is planning to create a new top-tier position to focus on customer service — part of a wave of organizational changes officials say are needed to improve how the utility functions and works with the public.
The “chief of customer service,” who would report directly to Executive Director Ghassan Korban, would be responsible for overseeing most of the S&WB’s interactions with its customers, elevating a function that officials said is currently too spread out and buried in the organization.
“We believe creating a chief of customer service position and, more importantly, a customer service organization is where we need to go,” David Callahan, who has overseen the planned restructuring, told the agency's board of directors this week.
At Mayor LaToya Cantrell's request, Callahan, a retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral, briefly served as the utility's interim head before Korban came aboard in September.
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The plan, which also includes creating a new post of chief administrative officer, elevating the status of the internal auditing department and incorporating the newly filled position of chief of staff, would mark the first major changes to the organization since Korban took over.
It was inspired in part by conversations with chief executives of other water utilities, many of which have run into similar problems as those now faced by the S&WB, Callahan said.
The idea, he said, was to structure the organization more like other utilities and less like city agencies.
The customer service department would likely be the one most relevant to customers and would oversee billing and collections, the call center and meter reading. In addition, it would supervise a new “customer care advocate” position.
The S&WB’s customer service has been under particular scrutiny the past couple of years in the wake of widespread problems with overbilling, frustration among many customers about the difficulty of getting their issues resolved and criticism of the board's decision last year to resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, a practice that had been suspended at the height of the billing problems.
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The plan to focus on customer service “speaks to trust building and even the image that we’re trying to address,” said Cantrell, who serves as president of the board.
The other positions being created would be charged with a range of duties, with many focused on better strategic planning.
The reorganization would also eliminate three top-level positions that are now vacant: the deputy directors of logistics, security and human resources. Their previous occupants were ousted by Cantrell just before Korban took office last fall after it was reported that the three officials had received significant and retroactive raises as the utility faced a financial crunch.
Their duties will be absorbed by other departments. No other positions will be eliminated under the plan, Korban said.
The restructuring would likely not take effect until late this year or early next year, though some hires could be made earlier if the utility finds candidates who would be good fits for the positions, Korban said. That would keep the plan from raising costs in a year when the utility is on shaky financial ground.
Exactly what the overall cost of eliminating, creating and elevating positions would be has yet to be determined.
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“I don’t know if it’s going to be a plus or minus. I’m assuming it’s going to be on the plus side but not in any significant way in terms of the overall budget of the utility,” Korban said.