Hedging Utility Customer Service against Disaster

Douglas Hartman, TELUS International

Current technology allows bad news to travel faster than ever before. If a company’s actions upset a customer, that customer can blog, Tweet, Facebook or use one of the hundreds of different social media channels to convey his frustration to thousands of contacts. Organizations are fully accountable for their actions and the services they provide, putting more pressure on companies to get it right the first time—especially when it comes to customer service. This can overwhelm utilities.

Many predict that climate change will impact customer service in coming years as extreme weather events occur more frequently and, in many cases, with greater intensity.

British advisory firm Maplecroft released its “2010 Natural Disaster Index,” which said a natural disaster will likely hit 229 countries. The Index ranked the U.S. as “high risk.” Disasters’ increased scale and scope affects wider swaths of people (including employees) for longer periods of time. Interdependencies in business relationships and supply chains also have increased, meaning disasters can do a lot more damage to businesses than before.

In addition to more frequent natural disasters, new initiatives focused on smart grid, demand response and energy efficiency are transforming the terrain for many utilities. Consumers are interacting more with their utility. With the potential for daily engagement, consumers are learning to understand new smart tools for energy management and their resulting utility bill. To educate consumers on the changes ahead, utilities must transform customers’ experiences and gain their trust.

Contact Centers: The Lifeline to Customers

Contact centers, which now encompass all forms of communications including phone, emails, online chat and social media support like Twitter, play an important role as the lifeline to customers. Contact centers have become mission critical to managing corporate brand and reputation. What happens, however, if something goes wrong? What happens to customer service if the contact center goes down whether from natural disaster, infrastructure disaster (like power loss) or people-initiated disaster (intentional or not)?

As a provider of an essential service, utilities are not strangers to disaster readiness. Disaster recovery and business continuity plans are central to the utility business and include:

  • Storm plans—how to restore the electrical distribution system after a severe storm;
  • System restoration plans—how to recover from a blackout of the electrical system;
  • Telecommunication plans—how to restore communications during interruption; and
  • Data processing plans—how to migrate to backup sites to run critical applications.

These plans focus on physical infrastructure and systems, not customer service. A white paper released in 2010 by IDC Energy Insights and sponsored by TELUS supports this view. IDC Insights surveyed 60 North American utilities that are preparing for the smart grid customer experience. IDC Insights asked business and IT respondents to rate their top three business challenges.

The study revealed that customer service/engagement and change management accounted for less than 50 percent of IT challenges and less than 20 percent of business challenges (see Figure 1). This indicates that customer service and planning has traditionally not been a high priority for utilities—although this is changing.

If a utility relies on a single contact center, or even several centers in the same part of the world, it can lose its entire ability to communicate with customers when disaster hits. Geographic diversity becomes important and utilities need facilities on different power grids, water sources, telecommunications networks and even transportation systems.

Benefits of External Providers

Growing customer service demands and the potential for single-sourced areas (customer care and power delivery in the same state) to be impacted by disasters can make a customer service provider valuable as a home operations base. These home operations bases allow customers to get in touch with their utility and relay critical information if a natural disaster strikes.

Many firms find that partnering with a specialized contact center firm is effective for ensuring always-on customer service during a disaster. Business process outsourcing (BPO) contact center firms have expertise, economies of scale, geographic diversity and redundant call center technology to keep business going. They place a high value on ensuring that service will be there if disaster strikes and, like utilities, many are risk adverse.

Good contact center providers have rigorous business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place, often covering events and scenarios not always considered or tested by many organizations. BPO providers also have a wealth of information on staffing for unusual situations, testing and implementing a recovery plan quickly.

Utilities recognize many benefits of partnering with a contact center expert (see Figure 2). According to the white paper, almost half of utilities’ outsourcing concerns are related to offshoring, rather than outsourcing. Forward-looking utilities realize it’s important to select the right partner and use a “best shore” approach (onshore, near-shore, offshore)—putting resources into the correct strategy.

Getting Creative for Customer Care

Many utilities are looking for help with contact center outsourcing, but they are limited by state employment regulations or other PUC challenges; therefore, some are looking for alternative solutions. One solution is the collective, or shared agent, contact center. The collective contact center engages a pool of utilities committed to purchasing a minimum number of contact seats. All seats would be dedicated to providing contact center solutions for particular utilities and would be trained to handle general utility industry issue management. During regular days, the program could be used to handle overflow, provide additional email support and help introduce new platforms like online chat and social media customer service. In the event a disaster afflicts a particular utility, the collective would pool agents to provide ongoing customer support for the disaster victim during the remainder of the crisis.

Tier 1 support allows messages to be taken for routine inquiries. Tier 2 support deals with a crisis that affects the utility operations including downed power lines or gas leaks. Agents can quickly and efficiently communicate back to the utility, informing the company of the various elements affecting their service area and relaying messages to households affected by the disaster. This would create an ongoing information loop, ensuring no one is cut off.

Many business interruptions go unreported, and therefore the negative impact on customer service is hard to measure. Research from leading analysts suggests that organizations could lose between $84,000 and $108,000 for every hour an IT system is down. This loss can be averted with a business continuity plan that takes the geographical location of customer service into account. Reliance on third parties for mission critical services that impact processes, lives and bottom line is a viable option.

The need to be prepared for every eventuality has become fundamental at a time when customer expectations for availability and quality of service are increasing. In a world facing increased weather extremes, utilities need a solid customer service plan when Mother Nature chooses not to cooperate.

Douglas Hartman is executive director, energy solutions at TELUS International, a provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients.

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