customer service: utility style effective outage communications

Our CEO, Tom May, reminds us frequently that our customers do not want to be in the dark, literally or figuratively. This was recently reinforced when I met with a group of concerned citizens at a town meeting focused on system reliability. They understood that in our efforts to improve reliability, planned outages were needed, but they were upset because we had been keeping them in the dark, figuratively, about the planned outages. We were not providing them with quality information.

J.D. Power and Associates’ 2005 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study indicated that customers’ satisfaction with their experience is largely impacted by the quality of information provided when they experience an outage. Providing customers experiencing outages with one piece of information about their outage instead of no information improved satisfaction in the power quality index by 40 percent. Research shows that providing additional points of information results in further increases.

valued information points

Customers need information to appropriately adjust to accommodate the outage. They want to determine if they should go out to dinner, send a shift home early, or take other actions to mitigate the impact of the outage. Customers need information they can use and reassurance that their utility knows what it is doing. One of the most important pieces of information that a utility can provide to customers is the estimated time of restoration (ETR). Other valued information points identified in research include:

Area-specific information
Providing customers with information on the extent of the outage and the specific areas impacted by the outage allows them to make informed decisions on how to best respond. Is the outage isolated to a few homes, or did it impact an entire town, or several towns?

Customer-specific information
Customers feel reassured when a utility confirms that it is aware that the customer’s specific premise is impacted by this outage.

Utility response to the outage
Customers want to know that the utility is analyzing, dispatching or actually working on the situation. Customers are reassured in large events that additional crews have been brought in to assist in outage restoration.

Customer actions
Customers want instructions on what to do next. For example, if the power is not restored within the estimated time of restoration, they could be told to “please call back” to check for an updated status.

Outage cause
Tell customers what caused their outage.

Research is valuable for utilities that want to know what information customers would like about an outage, but the real challenge is providing this information. To do that, utilities are applying innovative strategies with respect to ETR, self service and restoration callbacks.

The leading utilities are combining robust ETR default tables with callbacks to provide customers with accurate ETRs. Utilities using default ETR tables can sometimes provide an ETR one or two minutes after the outage occurs. The utility has covered all its bases if it combines a default table-based ETR with an option for an ETR callback to the customer if the ETR is not available or has changed.

Utilities are increasingly moving customers to self service via interactive voice response (IVR) and the web to report and gain outage status information. At some utilities, more than 50 percent of outage calls are processed by the IVR, and some, like Duke Power, are trying to serve a broader customer base by offering outage reporting via IVR in both Spanish and English. The web is becoming a popular medium to communicate outage information. Utilities effectively using the web post restoration information and maps of areas impacted by outages. This becomes the medium for official outage communication for media and stakeholders and ensures the message is timely, accurate and consistent.

Restoration callbacks are a big hit with customers and they also benefit utility operations. From an operational perspective, the outage callback can be very functional at quickly determining nested outages. The callback can also communicate other outage information, such as the outage cause. From a customer perspective, when a customer receives a courtesy callback, J.D. Power’s research shows an increase of more than 20 percent on the power quality and reliability index.

Penni McLean-Conner is the vice president of customer care at NSTAR, Massachusetts’ largest investor-owned electric and gas utility. McLean-Conner, a registered professional engineer, serves on several industry boards of directors, including the CIS Conference, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Her first book, “Customer Service: Utility Style,” has just been published by PennWell Books.

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