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Hats off to the frontline workers in the electricity supply industry

This October, as has happened during others before, many firms will commemorate the Customer Service Week.

Companies use the five–day ceremony, which runs from October 3 to 7, to celebrate their workers who deal directly with customers and the entities that consume the firms’ goods and services.

How they commend their frontline workers and the clients is as varied as the number of companies. Many often award employees with certificates and offer plaques with appropriate wording to their customers.

Being in no position to issue such tablets, I write this as a token of respect to workers in customer–facing roles in the electricity supply industry. At least 1.6 million of the 10 million households in Uganda were connected to the national electricity grid, as of December 31, 2021.

All the electricity utilities, on the other hand, had 5,000 thereabouts direct employees serving in different roles. At any given time, a customer or prospective customer will inquire via telephone, Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp about, say, the cost of connection, where to pay, how long it will take to make the connection, a planned or unplanned outage and how soon it will be resolved.

Other customers or prospects will walk into the utilities’ offices. This being a rainy season, strong wind could fell electricity poles and cut off supply to tens of households, prompting the latter to contact the power utilities to restore supply fast.

Human beings, not automated answering machines as some people assume, reply the customers’ calls, tweets and WhatsApp messages. Frontline workers need to be calm and sensitive when dealing with even the toughest of customers.

Yours truly once sat at the front desk for an amiable colleague. That is when I got first-hand experience of a telephone that rings off the hook. The moment you conclude a phone conversation with one customer, another call comes through. And as you answer the calls, there are clients who will walk in and you should attend to them.

As a frontline worker, you will now and then have to de-escalate issues of the customers who come in asking to talk to a person no less than the managing director or chief executive officer.

If it is a connection to the electricity grid, as a technician, you will have to climb poles to install the meters, fix the cables that loop to the houses or even liaise with linesmen to clear vegetation.

This year, I doff my hat to staff in the electricity sector who engage communities to avoid stealing electricity and vandalising electricity infrastructure, vices that increase the risk of death from electrocution and knock out power supply.

Being at the forefront of uprooting illegal power connections, auditing meters or going after vandals comes with risks. Of late, many a household with something to hide has stoned technicians who turn up in the community to audit meters, check for unbilled consumption and bypassed meters.

It does not help matters that once the technicians are deep in the villages, they are outnumbered. Were it not for the omnipresent police, one can only imagine what else those stoning the meter inspectors would do.

Still, it is important that even in the face of such challenges, utilities muster up the courage needed. It is through anti–power theft drives – as well as capital investments to check technical losses – that Umeme reduced energy losses from 18 per cent to 17 per cent between January and June 2022.

In other words, if the utilities relent, energy losses will rise as happened between April 2020 and 2021 when many dishonest households took advantage of the government–imposed restriction on movement of people to either bypass meters or directly hook to the overhead conductors.

If much of the energy billed is consumed but not paid for, the electricity supply industry will face challenges of expanding, upgrading, or maintaining assets.

That could lead to a deterioration in the quality of service. Since it seems lost on some customers that energy losses are one of the contributors to ‘high electricity’ tariffs, as power consumers wait for next quarter’s retail power tariffs, many could do with a reminder that the Electricity Regulatory Authority takes energy losses into consideration when determining the retail price for power.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, there must be something your frontline colleague does well and you should complement them. As has been said before, it is the small things that count.

Nelson Wesonga works at Umeme Ltd.

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