Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A few comments on the Governor's State of the Commonwealth Address, and customer service, or the lack thereof at C.U.C.

Food For Thought 5-4-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Last week Governor Fitial gave his State of the Commonwealth Address, and I didn’t say a word about it last week in Food For Thought because I had an interview with Ricky Delgado Jr. all set to air instead. Frankly, I thought Ricky had some good things to say, and certainly gave us some of his own food for thought. But this week I’ve had several people come up to me asking why I didn’t have any comments on the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech. Most of the people who approached me on the matter seemed to think that I should be getting after the Governor for all his massive cuts.

As a matter of fact, I do have a few comments on the whole thing, but it may not be quite what some people were hoping for. The Governor started off by saying that he announced the government was broke last year, and we are still broke this year. He seemed to be fairly candid about our financial situation saying that further cuts will most likely be needed. At least he wasn’t ignoring what was so painfully obvious to the rest of us like his predecessor seemed to like to do. But why would I criticize the Governor for making cuts that I have been saying needed to be made for the past 5-½ years? I have been routinely saying that if this government didn’t start living within its means we would be completely bankrupt in no time.

There were a couple things I took issue with though, one of which was the big announcement. I don’t know if I dozed off at that particular moment, or if the Governor’s speechwriters just forgot to put it in his speech, but I certainly didn’t hear any big surprise or announcement. I heard the Governor talking about several proposed investments into the CNMI, which he claimed would all be breaking ground by the end of the year. Was that the big announcement? Because to be honest we have heard such things from the Governor before and we’re still waiting. Now most of us are taking a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude toward such announcements.

We heard him tell us when he was campaigning for Governor that he had various businesses lined up to come to Saipan, all they were waiting for was him to be elected governor. So whatever happened to the shoe factory or the peanut butter factory? Whatever happened to the floating hotel that was going to be located across from Kristo Rai church? Remember, that’s why the Governor refused to give that land for the farmers market, he said he had an investor ready to build there. The Governor claimed to have very close ties to all these major investors and businessmen that would flock to the CNMI if only he were governor. We were also supposed to see the return of the airlines if we elected him as governor, and we’re still waiting on that too. We were told that as soon as he was elected governor, he would do away with the fuel surcharge on our C.U.C. utility bills. But nothing happened for nearly 8 months, and then instead of eliminating it and cutting down on our bills, they increased it even further making our bills skyrocket past anything we’d ever seen before. Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t have been an increase in our utility rates to cover the costs, I’m just saying that the Governor shouldn’t have promised something while campaigning that he knew he could never deliver on. I even have the Governor on tape telling me that not only would he eliminate the fuel surcharge, but also that he would even further lower the rates. Was he really just that out of touch with reality about the situation at the utility, or was he just saying whatever he thought we wanted to hear to get votes? It erodes his credibility and makes all of us that much more skeptical the next time he tells us something is going to happen. The bottom line here is don’t be promising things you can’t deliver on, or try to encourage us by telling us about developments that may or may not ever happen. So if the big announcement was all these “supposed” new developments, I think you can understand why we might be a bit skeptical, and would have wondered if we missed the announcement all together.

I also didn’t buy his assessment of meeting a balanced budget last year, and even having a small surplus. That was only accomplished because the government stopped making it’s contribution to the retirement fund, and because they suspended the payout of tax rebates and refunds for that year. That would be like me claiming I have managed to put thousands of dollars into savings this year, even though I had to stop making my regular payments to do it. So did I really save money, or am I just fooling myself by putting off other debts? The administration can try spinning it any way they want, but the truth of the matter is they did not meet all their financial obligations last year, they didn’t even come close to it. Yes, I believe the Governor deserves some credit for the cuts that were made, and trying to cut down on the ridiculous government spending, but let’s not fool ourselves, we didn’t live within our means, and we didn’t really achieve a balanced budget, we just put off paying our bills.

One of the things I was hoping would really make a difference was a government wide jobs audit the Governor said they were going to do last year, to determine if some jobs were duplicating functions, and see if government employees were really earning their pay or not. The private sector has been saying for years that this government is hugely bloated, and that government jobs need to be cut. Many of us have also been saying that there are many government employees who are simply horrible in their jobs and don’t even try because they know they have civil service protection.

I found a perfect example of why our government needs a healthy dose of customer service training this past week. I had just moved, and wanted to have power turned off at my former apartment. My wife tried calling C.U.C. to notify them and have them turn off the power, but she was told that I had to come down there and do it in person, since the account was in my name. Ok, I guess that makes some kind of sense, since you don’t want people just calling up C.U.C. and disconnecting someone else’s power, so I went to their office in the Joeten Dan Dan building, expecting I would just have to go sign a form and be done with it. I was greeted at the door with a long line of customers all waiting their turn to talk to a customer service representative, so I went, took a number and then took a seat. For the first 15 minutes it doesn’t really hit you, you’re expecting to be called any minute. Then you hear them call the number, it’s number 13, and you’re number 23, now it starts to sink in. You realize you’ve been there over 15 minutes and they just called their first number, so you start doing the math and you realize you’re in for at least a couple hour wait.

Yes, it’s true that there were 2 or 3 customer service representatives, but they weren’t all there all the time, one of them seemed to disappear for long periods at a time. I’m not talking 5 or 10 minutes, I’m talking 30 minutes to an hour at a time, and this is in the middle of the afternoon. After you’ve been there for an hour, you realize they are taking an average of 30 minutes with each customer. How is that possible? What could they possibly have to talk about that could take up that much time? I believe that many of the customers were there to try and get some kind of payment plan worked out so their power wasn’t shut off. And from my observation, it wasn’t the customers that were taking up all the time by talking, they seemed to be sitting there waiting while the customer service representative took off to parts unknown, only to return 15-30 minutes later.

The one that really got my blood boiling though was a customer service representative who had her customer go get in line at the payment window. She just sat there while he went to make his payment, she didn’t call the next number or wait on anyone else, she just sat there, sitting, waiting, and waiting, and waiting. He finally got through the payment line about 25 minutes later, he came back to her window, showed her his receipt, and then he left. She took his receipt, made a note of it, and let him go. She didn’t seem to have any further business with him other than to see that he indeed made his payment. But rather than start waiting on the next customer, since there were at least 15 people waiting at that point, she just sat there wasting 25 minutes waiting for him to bring back his receipt. She obviously didn’t care that there was a long line of people waiting to be helped; she was going to take her sweet time, and not do another thing until he brought back his receipt. If that lady had worked for me, I would have fired her on the spot. The private sector can’t tolerate that kind of sloppy work ethic and horrible customer service; we wouldn’t have any customers if we did. The government is the only one who can get away with such terrible service, you have to do business with them, they have a monopoly and you don’t have any choice in the matter. The employees know they don’t have to worry about performance evaluations or competition; they are civil service employees and are protected. And the government wonders why we have been pushing so hard for privatization of certain government services. With government employees like that, you’re wasting all of your customers time and money, and you are a huge part of the problem. I have had certain elected officials ask me where I would start to clean up the mess in government and what I would do about it. Since I spent over 4 hours sitting in lines at C.U.C. and the Department of Finance that day, that seems like as good a spot to start as any. If you have employees there that are too slow or don’t care about good customer service, get rid of them, reassign them or do whatever you have to, but put people in there who can move the customers through at a reasonable pace. When was the last time you did an assessment of your customer service and took a look at whether you were meeting your customers needs or not? If you need a place to start, those two are it!

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM