Ratepayers frustrated by call centres

By Mervyn Naidoo Time of article published Oct 11, 2021

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IT WAS a frustrating time for eThekwini Municipality’s ratepayers who called the City’s customer service centres to report electricity or water complaints in the first half of 2021.

Many of the callers who dialled the City’s customer service centres were unable to get past first base with their respective pleas for assistance and inquiry.

The City conceded last week that 63% of all calls directed to their electricity call centre between January and June were dropped.

In the same period, 42% of ratepayers who dialled the municipality’s water and sanitation number also had their calls dropped.

The dropped calls statistics were included in the response given to Nicole Graham, the DA’s eThekwini chief whip, who directed questions to the municipal speaker about the functioning of the City’s service centres, which were out of order last week.

This latest malfunctioning of the centres was apparently due to theft of Telkom infrastructure.

It also stated in the responses to Graham that the water and sanitation WhatsApp line was manned by two people for much of the day and one person during the wee hours.

Further, that their system does not tabulate billing complaints, which meant the department had no idea how many live billing queries were on hand at any given time.

The average waiting time for water queries was nearly two minutes while callers had to endure a five-minute wait on average to electricity’s call centre.

Graham said the responses she received revealed the shocking state of the municipality's customer service centres.

“Residents have received shoddy services and failing customer responses for far too long.”

Graham said her party had repeatedly reiterated the need to transform the way the City’s call centres do business.

“Tens of thousands of residents are plagued with outages and other issues on a daily basis, and cannot get proper assistance,” she said.

eThekwini Municipality’s annual revenue budget is said to be around R50 billion and its more than 470 000 residential and 17 000 business and commercial ratepayers are among the contributors to the city’s annual earnings.

“The sale of water and electricity and the payment of rates keeps the municipality in business and their customers deserve a dignified and efficient service that responds to their concerns in full and on time.

Graham said in 2020 she visited the electricity call centre and made written recommendations on feedback between faultsmen and communication staff, the handling of WhatsApp queries and staff numbers.

But in spite of the proposed solutions, protests and complaints, nothing was being done to improve this service.

Mdu Nkosi, the IFP’s representative in the City’s executive committee said it was unsettling that the City couldn’t effectively assist ratepayers.

“Only two people manning WhatsApp messages on core services is very disturbing.”

Nkosi said busy telephone lines were a big frustration for ratepayers.

“People who work for a municipality that controls billions of rands must understand that they were employed to serve the community. If they are failing to deliver because of their lackadaisical attitude, that is not acceptable.

“Then it means there is something systematically wrong.”

Nkosi stated that he was on record complaining about the city’s billing system that has caused many residents to pay more than they should.

“We must get rid of this system because it kills homes and businesses,” Nkosi suggested.

Carol Bailey of the Drummond Ratepayers Association said they had hassles engaging with the water department’s service centre.

“We have endless complaints about the number ringing and cutting off. When you do get through, the assistants are helpful, but they don’t know what is happening on the ground.”

Bailey said there was no communication between the plumbers and the call centre.

“If we can get that right, it would be a great help.”

She recommended an effective tracking system to show where their technicians are so a more accurate depiction of progress can be given.

Jeeva Pillay of the Tongaat Civic Association noticed that the electricity call centre was often short-staffed and when their lines were down, there needs to be an automated response played back to callers.

Pillay agreed that technicians on the field needed to give proper feedback to call centre operators so that ratepayers could be kept informed.

He claimed there were some private contractors who dragged work orders so that they could score bigger payouts from overtime and weekend hours.

“Previously, heads of water and electricity departments were reachable on the phone or email and would give a concise response to queries.

“But not any more. When the assistance of heads is required we are always told they are not available or in meetings,” said Pillay.

Cody Chetty, chairperson of the Reservoir Hills Ratepayers Association said they received many complaints from elderly people about being unable to reach call centres.

Chetty said some residents got responses on the WhatsApp line while others are still waiting, months later, for a reaction.

“We have been assisting by combining queries and escalating it with our ward councillors.”

Msawakhe Mayisela, eThekwini’s spokesperson responded:

“Like any other city we are very affected by Covid-19, as a result at some point we were compelled by circumstances to reduce the number of staff in our bid to keep social distancing. This to a certain extent decreased our capacity. After the Covid-19 lockdown was eased, there was a huge improvement up to now, including with our WhatsApp communication.

We have recently launched our Smart Meter Reading technology that is going to improve our billing system. It should be noted that like any other metro, there will be cases of residents raising concerns about their billing issues and that does not mean that all residents are billed incorrectly. In the event of these concerns, we usually encourage our residents to touch base with the City with speed through our Sizakala centres that are spread all over the city.”

SUNDAY TRIBUNE

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