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Following the KC Water Services money: A look at the $12M fix

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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

The Kansas City Water Services Department is almost halfway through a two-year, $12 million plan to improve customer service as the city's water utility.

Most of the money has been spent so far to upgrade a 10-year-old computer program used to manage customer accounts. Other funds have been used to train customer service representatives and for staff scheduling software to make sure there's enough workers during peak call times.

"It's going to take a while to see all the benefits," said Kathleen M. Whalen, KC Water Services' customer service officer.

Whalen oversees the changes to the department with the help of a private contractor brought in by the city last year to make changes, in part, to how they manage 170,000 customers' accounts. Whalen said the department is now focusing on the process called "curb-to-cash," which has to do with making sure customers get the best service from their water meter all the way until they pay the bill.

"Obviously we realized we had a problem, you helped us identify that we had problems," Whalen said.

KCTV5 Investigative Reporter Eric Chaloux's award-winning series of investigations into the Kansas City water department's billing practices has exposed bills sent to empty lots, homes without pipes, properties that don't exists and even the dead.

"I can't fathom why we would owe a water bill," questioned Cynthia Jones, a water services customer.

Jones owns a house on Kansas City's southeast side. The small home was ransacked by crooks who took everything they could carry, including the water pipes. Jones said she called customer service repeatedly about the water bills for a home without any pipes.

"To me it was lousy customer service," Jones said. "She didn't hear what I was saying."

Jones, who now lives in Atlanta, wondered if other customers back in Kansas City, MO, were having similar problems with KC Water Services. That's when Jones found two years' worth of KCTV5 News Investigations, which led her to contact Chaloux.

KCTV5 forwarded Jones' bills and police report number to show there were no pipes to a water department spokeswoman, who quickly got on the case to investigate the bills.

"I'm ecstatic," Jones said. "I got a call from the Kansas City Water Department, and the lady was ready to work with me."

KC Water Services reviewed Jones' account and dropped the bill from almost $700 to half of that by removing fees and other charges.

"We're answering the phone which is a huge improvement," Whalen said. "When we do, we are giving better information than we used to."

According to KC Water Services, the call center receives between 1,000 and 1,500 customer calls a day at their center located on East 63rd Street. In the last year, under the new plan, Whalen said they have seen a drop from about 20 percent to the low single digits in the percentage of people who just hang up the phone without getting help.

"How quickly we respond to people, there's a very different feeling about customer service," Whalen said.

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