Automated Trouble Call Handling at Atlantic Energy
By John Abrams, Automation Consulting
Dispatching for an electrical utility during power outages is one of life`s most difficult tasks. For most individuals whose job it is to handle telephones, dispatch crews and generally facilitate the restoration of electrical service, life is made up of long periods of normalcy liberally interspersed with periods of intense activity.
A primary area of concern is the effective handling of customer telephone calls. While most utilities have a strong desire to provide access and information to customers during an outage, limiting factors such as available telephone lines and the availability of personnel to answer customer calls conspire to create a communications blockade. Customers who dial the utility are presented with busy signals, no answers and, for those fortunate enough to get through, lengthy periods on hold. In an era when the primary goal is to provide the highest level of customer service possible, such conditions become more unacceptable with each passing day.
In addition to the customer-service aspect, direct interaction between the customers and dispatch personnel often delays restoration by diverting available personnel from tasks that would more directly relate to making system repairs. The entire system conspires to create a situation familiar to every dispatcher nation-wide–repair efforts can`t be effectively coordinated because the phone won`t stop ringing and the phone won`t stop ringing because repairs haven`t been made.
The IVR Solution
According to an Atlantic Energy spokesperson in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (Atlantic City), the solution to the problem of effectively handling outage-related customer calls, and thus freeing the dispatcher to organize repairs, was the installation of an interactive-voice-response system (IVR) designed specifically for the purpose at hand. Project Manager Maren Landry said, “We want to use the customer as our sensors during an outage so we can determine the extent of the outage quickly. We can then give back to the customer the information they need on the location and duration of the outage.”
The system selected by Atlantic was provided by Automation Consulting Inc., a Pensacola, Fla.-based company specializing in voice systems for electrical utilities. “We opted for this system because they have an installed base of customers using a product designed for outage conditions. They understood the problems inherent in a dispatch center,” Landry explains. “This system will not be a throw away and will be integrated into planned enhancements for outage management.”
Trade named PORCHE/2, the IVR selected is an OS/2-based call-handling system developed for utility applications. Use of the system allows Atlantic to answer incoming customer calls simultaneously on 48 incoming telephone lines without the need for live operator interaction. Once accessed, the system provides callers with information on known outages and asks them to disconnect if the outage they are calling to report is already known and under repair. This procedure is designed to reduce the number of duplicate trouble reports and to shorten call length, thus increasing overall access. In similar usage by other utilities, this practice has resulted in disconnect rates as high as 92 percent and an average call length as low as 20 seconds per call. A 24-line system is therefore capable of handling up to 72 calls per minute or in excess of 4,000 calls per hour.
In the early stages of an outage, accurate information is normally not available and callers may file a trouble report by responding to system-generated voice prompts. The caller responds to these verbal requests by entering the requested information using the keypad on their touch-tone telephone. In an effort to further streamline the call-handling process, however, Atlantic`s system is capable of automatically identifying the telephone number of the calling party. This is accomplished through the use of Automatic Number Identification (ANI) signaling provided by the long-distance carrier.
Efficiency in Trouble Call Processing
As calls are received by the IVR system, the number of the calling party is captured and compared to a database that consists of the telephone numbers of Atlantic customers. If a “match” occurs, the system knows who placed the call. After reading the captured telephone number back to the caller for verification, the system informs the caller that they may disconnect if they are calling from the location where the problem is occurring and have no specific information relating to the outage cause (i.gif., tree on line, pole down, etc.). The intent of this process is to reduce time on the line and eliminate the need for caller input. The elimination of caller input not only speeds the reporting process but also removes any difficulties that may be caused if the caller does not have a touch telephone.
Those callers who remain on the line are assumed to have additional information or to be calling from a location other than that where the outage is occurring. These customers are led through the full reporting process and as an option may leave a voice message. Average time on the line for these callers is expected to be approximately 60 seconds.
Atlantic Energy, like many utilities, does not have automated outage-management tools. While the implementation of such technologies as automated-outage analysis and full-scale mapping are planned for some future date, they are not currently in place. Given this situation, the outage system was designed to provide as much assistance as possible to dispatch personnel until such time as other technologies are available. At that time, the IVR will be interfaced to the new systems to increase overall operational efficiency.
As each customer call is recorded by the system, a customer-call record is created and displayed to the system operator`s screen. This record contains all available information on the customer that may be of use to dispatch in locating and rectifying the problem. As calls continue to be received, the dispatcher may sort and display the collected information in a variety of fashions, most often by collating calls by substation, circuit, line section, street address or other common denominator. A summary screen also provides an overview of the current situation. The dispatcher may then utilize his or her knowledge of the system to dispatch crews.
A commonly reported problem during outage situations is the amount of paper generated. Most commonly present in the form of a trouble report or ticket, an outage of significant size can require that thousands of paper tickets be manually sorted and organized before any meaningful information may be derived. For an organization like Atlantic Energy with a customer base of over 450,000 consumers, this organizational process can be a virtually insurmountable task.
This problem has also been addressed in the structuring of the IVR. As the information on each caller is being provided by the system and is stored therein, there is no need to write a trouble ticket for each call. Given the sort capabilities inherent in the system, the need for manually sorting thousands of call records is also removed. Once the information collected has been organized (sorted) into the desired order, the system operator may selectively print only those trouble tickets desired. In actual operation, one ticket may be printed to represent any number of calls.
Additional customer service is provided in the form of the restoration verification performed by the system. Following the restoration of service to an area of the electrical system, the IVR may be instructed to call customers back and verify that their power has been restored. The use of this function not only assures customers that their outage report was received but also assists the utility in identifying those customers who were thought to be restored but, in reality, are still without service.
“It is our hope the automation of the outage call-handling process will reduce the duration and number of busy signals and allow Atlantic Energy to respond more quickly to our customers,” Landry said. “It allows central dispatch to concentrate on high-priority outage calls (police and fire) and to calling out crews. Our next project is to automate the crew- callout process.”
Sample screen for Atlantic Electric`s automated outage call handling system.