In March 2019 I was honored to participate in the CARILEC Customer Service, Corporate Communications and Human Resources conference, titled “Energy is Our Business, People is Our Power”. Although I’ve attended most of theCEO, Engineering and Renewable Energy CARILEC conferences over the last few years, this was my first encounter with HR, PR and Customer Service professionals in the utility sector. As someone with an engineering background, and having an acute interest in technologieswhich can help our Caribbean islands usher in more affordable, reliable and sustainable power solutions, at first I wasn’t sure ifI could relate to this conference crowd. But let me tell you, this was an amazing experience for which I am grateful from the bottom of my heart.

This was the first three-day conference I attended, where all of the participants attended the entirety of all sessions – from first to last. They were on time each morning – not typical in the Caribbean as you may know – and they stayed curious and engaged, eager to learn frompresenters and from each other.

Unsurprisingly, CARILEC put together an engaging agenda. Kelly Tomblin of Intren and formerly of JPS, Richard Solomon, SheneeTabannah of JPS, and Rita Trehan – a best-selling author – were just some of the memorable presenters. They kept us all on the edge of our seats. I myself learned so much and was for the first timeexposed to a different side of utilities, the “softer” side, the one that supports and has backs of engineers, linesmen and technical personnel – whowe typically think of, when we think of a utility company.

I was particularly blown away by the session with Mishlyn Stephen, a Commercial Department Head from N.V.G.E.B.E, St. Maarten. She started her presentation detailing the horrible devastation St. Maarten experienced during the 2017 hurricane Irma. I’ve heard that riveting story before, and whilethe colossal destruction of equipment and T&D is captivating, I was wondering why this story was being shared at the Human Resources / Customer Service conference, and not an engineering one.

Almost all of the 22,000 customers lost their power during hurricane Irma, and that’s in addition to damage and loss of their dwellings and vehicles. Paying electricity bills was not a priority for population under distress, but N.V.G.E.B.E had to find away to collect the outstanding bills from destroyed and disconnected meters in order to maintain financial fortitude and get back to providing power to the people.

It was the effort and creativecustomer-centric initiatives by the “softer” utility personnel that led the re-design of customer care solutions to allow for payment installment plans, reduced rates, intensive promotions, partial payments for those who lost jobs and for senior citizens. It was this new customer engagement that allowed the utility recover funds, while being compassionate and thoughtful of its customers and putting its customers first. Since the hurricane, N.V.G.E.B.E has rolled out many more initiatives giving its customers more control over their bills and a better experience, always striving for more. Michlyn’s session and others’ allowed me to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the softer side of the utilities, for which I am grateful.