Enhancing Outage Communications

by Penni McLean-Conner, Northeast Utilities

Enhancing outage communications is a popular topic in the utility world.  The challenge continues to be providing valued information to customers to improve the overall customer outage experience.

The challenge is huge. Utility customers are dissatisfied when the power goes out. Our fast-forward personal and business lives depend on power. The impact of a power outage can range from inconvenience to serious disruption in cases where power is needed to operate medically required equipment and everywhere in between.

During the next few months this column will explore techniques to enhance outage communications. The series will touch on outage reporting, customer-valued outage information, measurements to monitor progress on outage communications and communication channels.

Let’s first explore the best practices around outage reporting. For this series, we will focus on the day-to-day outage experience vs. communications during protracted outage events, such as Hurricane Sandy.

The first moment of truth for a customer impacted by an outage is the ease associated with reporting the outage. Statistically, only some 20 to 25 percent of customers impacted by an outage will report the outage. Utilities still rely on customers’ reporting outages to diagnose and respond, so these customer contacts are important to utilities.

Customers who report outages want to do so in a channel of their choice.  Utilities all provide the ability to report via phone, and many also are opening Web, text and mobile application channels to meet customers’ demands.  The most advanced utilities leverage channel preference management tools to facilitate communications to customers in their preferred channels.

Increasingly, Web and mobile channels are becoming customers’ preferred methods to report outages and receive outage information. Utilities are investing in ensuring outage reporting via their Web or mobile devices is easy while securing needed information on the outages. Utility websites offer the ability to report outages and offer outage maps that quickly allow customers to see the extent of outages in their areas. The best websites also provide information on outage restoration processes, causes and important safety information.

Utilities have invested well in ensuring customers who call to report outages are handled quickly and efficiently by a customer service representative or an interactive voice response system (IVR). Calls handled by customer service representatives need minimal wait times, and the customer care representatives should be caring and knowledgeable during their interaction. Utilities, for the most part, do a great job ensuring minimal wait time, thanks to adequate staffing and automation. And utilities also focus their agent training to ensure customer service representatives are caring. Investment in outage management systems and strong coordination with field operations is key to providing customers with timely, valued information.

To streamline the process even more, savvy utilities are leveraging computer telephony integration (CTI) to recognize callers in many cases, which speeds verification of customers and outage locations. Finally, wise utilities also are prompting customers for additional outage insight by prompting for additional information about wires down, blown fuses or partial power, among other data points.

Utilities should focus on outage communications during blue skies to enhance service. Most customers understand outages during severe storms, but they don’t understand when the power goes out on perfect, beautiful days. This is why many utility leaders are enhancing the outage experience for day-to-day outages on their systems. Improving this experience will have a positive result on overall customer satisfaction. Ensuring the first moment of truth is positive for a customer is a great start. Utilities are wise to ensure they have the staffing and technology to allow customers to report easily and learn about outage status.

Penni McLean-Conner is the chief customer officer at Northeast Utilities, the largest energy delivery company in New England. A  registered professional engineer, McLean-Conner is active in the utility industry serving on several boards of directors including CS Week and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Her latest book, “Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices,” is available at http://pennwellbooks.com.  Reach her at penelope.conner@nu.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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