What’s a chief experience officer? Jackson water manager’s leadership team takes shape

Ted Henifin
Ted Henifin(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 7, 2023 at 2:03 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A former Verizon executive, along with two public works officials on loan from the city of Jackson, are helping to round out the team that will oversee implementing a federal court order designed to bring Jackson’s water system into compliance with federal law.

Jordan Hillman, Jackson’s deputy director of public works over water, Terrence Byrd, the water plant operations supervisor for the city, and Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, a former Verizon call center manager, will be joining Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin’s leadership team with JXN Water.

JXN Water is the private corporation Henifin formed to help him manage the city’s water system and billing system. He established it late last year, only weeks after being appointed ITPM by a federal judge.

Hillman will serve as chief operations officer, while Byrd has been tapped to oversee contractor management. Abdul-Tawwab, meanwhile, will serve as chief experience officer.

JXN Water leaders including Henifin, Hillman and Abdul-Tawwab.
JXN Water leaders including Henifin, Hillman and Abdul-Tawwab.(WLBT)

So, what exactly is a chief experience officer?

“It’s a pretty new, buzzy term, but it’s really about both customer and employee experience,” Henifin said. “On the customer side, we’ve got a lot of work to do... We’ve been hard to access. We don’t provide a lot of follow-up.”

“I don’t know if that’s atypical for a city government in general. Maybe Jackson’s a little worse than others. But I don’t know most places where you go and try to interact with a government that you have a great experience,” he said. “And we want to change that.”

According to a copy of his bio found at jxnwater.com, Abdul-Tawwab has more than 18 years in the public utility industry and previously served as operations manager for a Verizon call center with 80 associates. Prior to taking on that role, he was a corporate trainer with Verizon, where he “directed the full-cycle hiring process from cradle to grave, preparing job postings, screening incoming resumes, conducting phone screens and formal interviews, and preparing offer letters.”

In Jackson, he’ll lead Jackson’s Water/Sewer Business Administration Office, which has 27 employees.

“People call in and never know if their leak reports are actually being done, whether their billing questions [are being addressed]. We really want to be able to make it easier to interact with us on water issues... make it easier for people to go into their phone or on their computer and see the status of whatever they asked about... So, [we’re] really trying to improve the whole customer experience,” Henifin said.

Abdul-Tawwab’s job will be figuring out how JXN Water will do that.

That includes looking at “what infrastructure we need to do that... how many people we need, what information technology resources we need, what programs we need to be using... to make the whole experience different and positive,” Henifin explained.

“Because when you call your local government or your water department, regardless of where you are, you’re typically not calling to say ‘thanks.’ You’ve got a problem, you’ve got an issue, you need [water] restored, you want to report something, and we want to make that as easy to do and as pleasant to do as any of the best companies.”

Jackson’s shortcomings in addressing customer needs were made apparent during the Christmas water crisis.

“We were asking people to report leaks. People say, ‘I’ve called that in for years and no one’s every done anything,’” he said. All that stuff just seems to stagnate somewhere. They don’t get any, any good feeling that we’re doing anything on it.”

[Belhaven resident says main breaks have gone unrepaired for a year, despite being reported to the city]

Henifin said some temporary staff could be brought in to help supplement city staff and that some new technology could be introduced to make the job easier for current employees, such as check readers to process payments.

“The billing system has so many manual processes... If you can imagine, we get a lot of checks, and we manually enter those checks into the system one at a time,” he said. “There’s technology, and not very expensive technology that can read a check and put it into your system.”

“Those kinds of things are taking a lot of staff time, because we have failed to invest in just relatively simple technology, and that’s just one example. There are other things we’ve already seen in the first week of really looking into what’s going on in WSBA.”

Technology aside, Henifin says Hillman is looking at relocating Jackson’s WSBA office.

“You’re well aware that they’re in really bad shape where they are at Metrocenter. It’s a terrible facility, the roof leaks, the HVAC doesn’t work. Citizens complain about the parking lot, and rightly so,” he said. “It’s like trying to drive through a war zone to get around there to the entrance. She’s going to be identifying a potential real estate that we can lease or buy to put our WSBA operations in.”

Hillman, who served as interim public works director during the water crisis, is “on loan” from the city.

“As chief operating officer... she’s really going to be sort-of the person behind the scenes making sure that everything’s working together or making the right improvements or making the right choices,” he said. “She knows a lot about the water system in general.”

Byrd, meanwhile, will be “hands-on managing contracts.”

JXN Water will be contracting out a good bit of work, including operations and maintenance of the city’s two water treatment facilities.

The EPA has long been concerned about the lack of staffing at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, which serves some 43,000 connections.

“This again isn’t unique to Jackson, but contract management in the public sector, you can’t hire someone to do something and not pay attention to what they’re doing, he said. So, Terrance is going to be the one really focused on contract performance for the treatment plants and for the distribution system, making sure [contractors] are doing what they say they’re doing, and making sure we’re paying them for what they’re doing.”

Work will be funded with a combination of EPA and city dollars.

The EPA has provided Jackson with a $2.9 million grant to fund Henifin’s professional expenses, while the the operations and maintenance of both the water system and billing system will be paid for out of city coffers.

Henifin set up an O&M account at Trustmark National Bank recently. The city council approved transferring $3.2 million into the account at its meeting on Tuesday.

At the time, the city and Henifin were still determining whether some employees in the billing office would remain on with the city or would be given jobs under JXN Water.

Henifin says WSBA staffers will remain on with the city, in part, because he doesn’t know how long JXN Water will be in place. He also says keeping the employees on city staff would ensure they continue to maintain eligibility for state retirement.

Court documents indicate the third-party manager would be in charge for at least a year. Henifin’s initial business filings with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office show that his company will be in place for at least two years.

“Obviously, it can’t exist like this forever, with a judge... being the guy in charge. At some point, you’d have to replace the judge with some sort of governing body, whether that’s the city council, the mayor or a new commission,” he said. “So, the deal we struck was we would pay the full cost of [employees] to the city on a reimbursable basis at the end of every month.”

“They’ll figure out what the cost of [each] employee was for the previous month. They’ll invoice JXN Water and JXN Water will essentially pay them back with money that they gave us,” Henifin said. “It’s a little weird, but from an accounting standpoint, it works pretty cleanly.”

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