They never knew they had a problem right below their feet.
Bruce Feuerhelm, a Burleson resident and manufacturing engineer for Lockheed, said it stunned him when he received a call from United Cooperative Services to say his electric usage suddenly had jumped past the norm.
Why would a power company care about his bill, he asked. And why would they offer to come to his home to help find the problem?
Throughout the month-long ordeal, Feuerhelm said he couldn’t believe the level of customer help the cooperative provided him while he and other service technicians worked to diagnose a slab leak that drained not only his hot water heater, but also his wallet.
“From the very beginning when they noticed that something was wrong to the very final end – the closure of fixing this problem, and then monitoring the problem to make sure problem was fixed and watching to make sure our electric bill and usage had returned to normal, United Cooperative Services took it from cradle to grave,” Feuerhelm said. “They followed up several times and just were there for me and my wife, Janice. That is so extraordinary that it almost brings tears to my eyes. In this world we live in today, that’s the kind of service you just don’t get. It’s very unusual. They treat people how they would want to be treated.”
Recently, United Cooperative Services received from the American Customer Satisfaction Index a satisfaction rating of 90 for the third quarter of 2016, marking the second time the organization has made an “A” this year and again making it the highest-rated utility in the country for satisfaction.
The ACSI is an independent, third-party survey first developed by the University of Michigan. It polls thousands of consumers annually regarding satisfaction levels with participating companies, all of which represent vast cross-sections of American business and industries.
As a comparison, average customer satisfaction scores for investor-owned electric utilities generally fall between 70 and 75. Generally, electric cooperatives tend to earn satisfaction scores that are higher than for-profit electric utilities.
“It makes me very proud that our service culture is imbedded so deeply in what we do consistently for our members,” said United CEO Cameron Smallwood. “This is something that I see every day in all of our employees. To have achieved yet another 90 satisfaction score from our members serves as proof how much we all care for them and work to keep them as happy as possible. We go the extra mile, and that sets us far apart not only regionally, but also nationally. We all live our commitment to our members exceptionally well every day, and that’s as it should be.”
The cooperative broke the 90 mark for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2012 and has consistently continued hitting or surpassing that figure.
Flood Beneath the Floor
Joan Hughes, a United member service representative (MSR), first noticed the Feuerhelm’s electricity usage suddenly had gone sky-high. She explained that when a member’s electricity usage suddenly alters, they show up on a variance report, and MSRs routinely call members to make sure they’re aware of the sudden change.
“I could see where their daily usage had increased and was staying high,” Hughes said. “So, I gave them a call asked them what could be causing that. At first, Mr. Feuerhelm thought he had an air conditioning problem. But when he fixed that and the usage still didn’t go down, I got Seth Rosser on our team involved in it, and we suggested an energy audit.”
An HVAC contractor came by to check out the system, Feuerhelm said, and there was a problem with the thermostat and a dirty filter. Still, even with that repaired, United employees didn’t see a drop in usage like they expected.
Rosser, an energy solutions manager at United, went out to check on the Feuerhelms to perform a partial energy audit and see if he could troubleshoot the issue. Energy audits look for possible energy problems in consumers’ homes and are free to members. The cooperative averages about 54 audits a month and have performed more than 9,000 since 2007.
“We called them back and let them know their energy use didn’t go down,” Rosser said. “We went out there when the AC company couldn’t find anything. So we started troubleshooting the HVAC system just to make sure the contractor didn’t miss anything. Just in conversation with Mrs. Feuerhelm, she had mentioned there was a part of her floor she noticed that had been warm. She walks around barefoot. That’s when it hit me there was a water leak in their slab. The floor was really, really hot. You could feel heat coming up off the floor. As far as an issue we see, that’s probably one of the harder ones to identify. We’ve only had a couple of slab leaks.”
Rosser switched off the breaker to the hot water heater, and the electric meter showed a quick drop off in the rate of usage. They also saw the water meter was spinning with all the water in the house turned off.
The Feuerhelms called a plumber to break open the slab and repair the faulty pipe.
“That is taking initiative and going above and beyond any service company,” Feuerhelm said. “Never in my life have I ever heard of such a thing that the electric company was willing to take initiative with a problem. United was aware of what was going on, and it monitored our electric usage after it was fixed. It was down. It went way down back to normal.”
That wasn’t the first time Feuerhelm said he’d encountered excellent service from United. Earlier in the year, a car fire on his driveway caused enough damage to the meter that his electricity had to be switched off.
“The meter melted,” he said. “They got my power back on that night. That was like at 2 a.m. in the morning. They were very responsive. That’s just another example of how United has demonstrated to me how they put customers first. It’s about service. To me, that’s a loud message about service to the customer.”
Sewer Pump Blues
Judith Tong-Allcock hadn’t thought about the vacation house on Lake Granbury for quite some time.
The getaway home had been given to her after her mother died, but looking after the needs of older family members had kept her and her husband from going as often as they once did. And in November 2015, the lake house wasn’t top-of-mind.
Jennifer Gainer, another United MSR out of the Granbury office, noticed a sudden jump in electricity usage and called Tong-Allcock to warn her that her usual $28 a month had ballooned past $100.
“If the current month’s usage appears to be outside of normal trends with no clear evidence of why it’s not functioning properly, I’ll give members a call,” Gainer said. “Sometimes I’ll give them a call anyway and talk to them about having an energy audit or having their heating and cooling systems tuned up if it seems like they are consistently high each season. This problem was way off for several months, so I kept touching base with her.”
Tong-Allcock said she went to the lake house and unplugged everything and put security boxes on all the outlets on the porches. Gainer sent a United representative to check the meter and the electrical components on the cooperative’s end.
Surely that would fix the problem, Tong-Allcock thought, but the next month, she received another call from Gainer.
Before United representatives came to give the home an energy audit, Tong-Allcock said she discovered in January that the sewage pump servicing her home had malfunctioned. February seemed fine, but March’s usage went higher than the original spike in November. Gainer gave Tong-Allcock another warning call that her bill still hadn’t corrected itself. The replacement sewage pump had also malfunctioned, and Tong-Allcock called the water company again to correct the issue.
Though steam from the malfunctioning pumps caused damage to her floors, Tong-Allcock said she was thankful for the warning and the reimbursement for faulty equipment. By April, she was back on track.
“Jennifer was very, very helpful,” Tong-Allcock said. “You just don’t find that kind of customer service. I was shocked. Any of the companies in the big city, they don’t call you. They don’t care. We live in River Oaks, and I kind of wish United was out here.”
Gainer said it was all part of her job to help out a member.
“It’s one of the really neat things we do,” she said. “It’s great when our members realize we’re trying to watch out for them. We’re not just trying to get a high bill out of them and get money.”
The field engineering representative had to reset the demand on a three-phase meter on the access road just south of United’s Burleson officers. That’s when he noticed traffic on the northbound side of Interstate 35W had stopped and one car on the side of the road had sustained major front-end damage.
Nearby, a minivan had rolled over into the median and onto the driver’s side. So, United’s Joe LoPalo called into the co-op’s dispatch and requested a 911 call. Then he checked on the occupants of the car on the side of the road.
The airbag had deployed, LoPalo said, and all seemed shaken, but physically alright.
“I then crossed the northbound lane of I-35 and approached the minivan on its side,” he said. “The vehicle was stable with no signs of immediate danger. I did request that the bystanders stop their attempt to break the windshield in order to remove the occupant. I then entered the van from the back window that was already broken out. I found a female still strapped in the driver’s seat, and she was alert and talking. I did a brief assessment and found no injuries, and confirmed she was the only occupant in the vehicle at the time of the accident. I maintained c-spine stabilization until the fire department arrived and was able to remove the driver. I think she was transported to the hospital to be evaluated as a precaution.”
After a few weeks had passed, MSR Dallas Rickman received a call from the driver of the minivan who LoPalo had assisted during the accident. She explained who she was and that she wanted to thank LoPalo personally for being there for her. Rickman transferred her call to his cell phone.
“The driver thanked me for staying with her until the fire department was able to remove her from the van,” he said. “She said, ‘thank you for making me laugh while we were waiting.’ She said it made a bad situation more tolerable.”