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What It Takes

For customer care representatives, empathy and multitasking are key

February 7, 2024 | Grant Schulte | customer service, OPPD employees, What It Takes
customer care

She was an elderly widow, and she needed help.

Several times a month, the customer, who we’ll call Vera, would call OPPD’s customer care line. She had little money and no immediate family. She worried about her bill, about losing power.

So Jayda Butkus, an OPPD customer care representative, gave Vera her direct phone number. And answered her every call. Butkus assured Vera that everything would be OK, that the utility would work with her. Most importantly, she listened.

“I would always just talk with her, work with her as best I could,” Butkus said. “She sent me a card later, and it was one of the most special things that has ever happened to me. I think we take for granted sometimes how well off we are. There are people out there who just struggle.”

OPPD’s customer care team serves as the public face of OPPD, answering more than a thousand calls and hundreds of emails every day while juggling important, behind-the-scenes work to maintain seamless operations.

But for Vera and others who call, customer care agents are a kind voice and a source of help when problems arise.

Customer care is a team effort

OPPD’s customer care team isn’t for everyone. The job requires extraordinary patience, people skills and attention to detail. Of the 700 people who recently applied for customer care representative positions, OPPD selected 15 finalists. Three were hired.

The team answers an average of 1,300 calls per day, a total 311,000 last year. A typical representative handles around 42 calls a day, assisting customers through dozens of issues. Billing. Outages. Starting or stopping service. The work is intense at times, and contact center representatives must know how to answer – or find answers to – hundreds of questions that customers might ask.

“We consider ourselves the front door to OPPD,” said Patrick Almgren, manager of customer care services.

Within the team are different groups.

Some agents, like Butkus, answer routine weekday calls. Others respond to outage reports on nights, weekends and holidays, ensuring around the clock service. Some serve walk-in customers at Energy Plaza downtown.

Another team works with businesses and landlords, generates reports to keep customer accounts from slipping through the cracks, and answers around 45,000 emails year.

Still another team serves as leaders who assist other agents and handle “escalation” calls, when customers ask to speak to a manager.

A sense of empathy

When you start as a new hire, expect a learning curve. Almgren said most new representatives need at least six months to become truly comfortable in the job, even with formal training and a partner program that pairs rookies with more seasoned workers. Some of the strongest hires worked in hospitality as waiters and waitresses, or in the insurance or medical industries.

“You need a natural empathy, because customers on the phone know whether you’re putting on a show or if you genuinely care,” Almgren said. “You can’t fake customer service. If you’re just reciting buzzwords and baloney, they can read right through that.”

Butkus said her day is full of variety.

Some customers ask why their bill is unusually high, or what OPPD workers are doing in their neighborhood. Others want to report an outage. Butkus has even helped a few local celebrities (OPPD can’t identify customers, sorry!).

“My biggest reward is helping customers who are in need – giving them resources, being kind to them, not making them feel bad about their situation,” said Butkus, a former steakhouse waitress who grew up in south Omaha. “There have been so many people over the years who have brought me to tears, just because of how thankful they are that I took time with them.”

There are high-stress times, like major outages. One tough part of the job is trying to help frustrated customers, staying composed and polite, and then going to the next caller unaffected.

“You have to tell yourself, ‘It’s not me,’” Butkus said. “You may have a person with issues or troubles and they want to blame somebody. We don’t want to make the situation worse.”

Always learning

Another contact center team specializes in business customers and uses their extensive experience to help others.

“Even if you don’t have calls coming in and the emails are at zero, there is always something to do," said Tori Nicholson, a senior customer care representative shown working from home. "I like the busyness of it.” Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske
“Even if you don’t have calls coming in and the emails are at zero, there is always something to do,” said Tori Nicholson, a senior customer care representative shown working from home. “I like the busyness of it.” Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

Senior customer care representatives juggle calls, customer emails, reports and “back office work,” including landlord contracts, nondisclosure agreements and other important, often technical work. They also field social media questions and comments.

Most started as residential customer care agents, then transitioned to a more senior role.

“There’s always work to be done,” said Tori Nicholson, a senior customer care representative since 2021. “Even if you don’t have calls coming in and the emails are at zero, there is always something to do. I like the busyness of it.”

Nicholson said continued education is a key part of the job.

“You just keep your nose to the ground and never stop learning,” she said. “That helped me get to where I am, and I’m not done. I love the position I’m in, but you never stop learning.”

Multitasking and attention to detail

One of Nicholson’s most memorable calls came during the 2021 polar vortex, which led to rolling, controlled blackouts throughout the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) footprint. SPP is the regional transmission organization to which OPPD belongs.

An older woman called OPPD, terrified that she would lose power. Nicholson, who was helping with the storm response, asked if there was anyone the woman could call and suggested several options.

The next day, Nicholson called the woman back to make sure she was OK. Surprised by the follow-up, the woman thanked her profusely.

“I really was just doing my job,” Nicholson said. “I told her she was in the clear. I have grandparents, and I would never want my grandmother to be treated badly if she was in that situation.”

For Nicholson, the experience she has gained reinforced that the job isn’t for everyone.

“It does take a special type of person who really enjoys talking to people,” she said. “You have to empathize with others. You also need to be able to multitask and juggle a lot. When you come in on Monday morning and there are 170 emails in the inbox, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by something like that.”

The stakes can be high. Mess up a detail in an account, and someone who caught up on late payments might not get reconnected. Mistype an email, and a customer on paperless billing might not receive their bill. It helps to double, triple even quadruple check accounts.

Moving on

Contact center representatives also sometimes move to other parts of the company, where they grow even more.

The transition is bittersweet: On one hand, Almgren said he hates to lose great talent. On the other, he wants his team members to rise, learn new skills and reach their potential.

“We see so much positive promotional growth among our groups,” Almgren said. “We have dozens and dozens of former contact center agents in all of these different areas of OPPD. It’s pretty cool to see them start in the contact center and branch out all over the place.”

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About Grant Schulte

Grant Schulte joined OPPD as a content generalist in 2022. He is a former reporter for The Associated Press, where he covered the Nebraska Legislature, state politics and other news for a global audience. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a proud Hawkeye. In his free time he enjoys running, reading, spending time with his wife, and all things aviation.

View all posts by Grant Schulte >

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