A series of record-setting blizzards knocked out power in widely scattered parts of the East Coast in February 2010. Washington D.C. was especially hard hit. Washington D.C. utility PEPCO anticipated their call center would soon be overwhelmed with customer calls.
However for the first time in such a trying circumstance, PEPCO and Tampa utility TECO worked together using a system of call center assistance known as the Mutual Assistance Routing System, or MARS.
Under this system, operators based in Tampa, Fla., helped PEPCO customers in the nation’s capital with their power outages.
Mutual assistance is a cornerstone of the utility industry. But until now, it has been limited to line crews, equipment and other resources dedicated to power restoration.
Utilities have long had interactive voice response technology, which can be configured to take outage reports during a disaster-caused blackout.
John Rhind, Director of Marketing and Communications with Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC), said that as outages continue into days and weeks, utility customers need to speak with live customer service professionals.
“What happens is people want to talk to real people. To use D.C. as an example, they were getting hammered with more phone calls than they could possibly handle. So they used the MARS system to send their customer service calls to another utility,” Rhind said.
In a snowstorm, hurricane or other significant outage-causing event, it’s not unusual for as many as 20 percent of the homes affected to call their utility’s call center within the first hour, said Al Osterling, Senior Program Manager for Call Center Solutions at PEPCO.
“This recent event affected over 100,000 customers in the PEPCO and 100,000 customers in Atlantic City Electric regions. Maintaining call center staff and telephone facilities exclusively to handle these types of events is an extremely challenging and often cost prohibitive proposition,” Osterling said.
Osterling helped introduce and develop the concept of a virtual call center, putting a team together and leading the project, which was managed by PEPCO and partners Tampa Electric and TFCC.
After seeing the idea go through its rounds of testing and development, Osterling said he was pleased to see the concept deliver on its promises.
“I am grateful and humbled to say that every aspect of the program worked. We were able to bring support to PEPCO within three hours of the original request and only use the support during hours that the support was needed. This result was only possible thanks to the dedicated work of all of the teams involved in the development and testing of the program,” he said.
Barb Powers, Tampa Electric’s Director of Customer Services, said MARS is a powerful tool that lets utilities work more closely with one another.
“I think that we as utilities are in a unique position to be able to assist each other in an emergency without negatively affecting the rates our customers pay,” Powers said. “I hope to never have to make the call that PEPCO had to make this last week to ask for help, but I sleep better knowing I have several companies at my fingertips if the need arises.”
Jim Kennedy, CEO of TFCC, said that while mutual assistance has been a part of the utility industry since its inception, the status quo had many shortcomings.
When utilities work together, they often have compatibility obstacles with their technology. Phone systems, customer information systems, outage management systems and the screens used by customer service representatives used by one utility might be incompatible with those used by another.
Yet history has shown the ability for utilities to provide call center support during major outages is a critical need,” Kennedy said. “Weather or other conditions may make it impossible for a utility to fully staff its call centers during an event. A call center may become inoperative due to a natural or manmade disaster. The influx of calls may be so great, such as happened with PEPCO and Atlantic City Electric, that the call center is overwhelmed.”
However, TFCC was able to “translate” calls from one utility to another, effectively making any call compatible with any carrier. With the company’s process, an AT&T based utility could receive aid from a utility that uses Sprint, Kennedy said.
“TFCC’s experience with the American Red Cross during Katrina demonstrated the feasibility of call “Ëœtranslation.’ TFCC has for decades interfaced and supported utility client’s database transactions. The biggest challenge was coming up with a common set of screens that would satisfy all the utilities wishing to use MARS,” Kennedy said.
TFCC also developed a universal set of screens that can be used by responding utilities. This way a customer service representative would need to learn only their own company’s screens and the universal MARS screens.
Kennedy said that from the customer’s perspective, there is no way to tell whether his or her call is being taken locally, or in another part of the country.
The customer experience is the same as if the call were answered by the requesting utility. The responding customer service representative sees a screen with the requesting utility’s logo and follows the same script as would be followed by the requesting utility’s customer service representative (CSR). The CSR is able to access the requesting utility’s customer information system /outage management system, enter trouble tickets, provide restoration time, know how many times the customer has called as well as use on-line frequently asked question and wild card search capabilities. In short, the customer believes the calls are being answered by the requesting utility, he said.
Kennedy said some of the other utilities with which TFCC does business have expressed an interest in participating in MARS.
“TFCC would really like to add West Coast and Midwest utilities to MARS, providing additional geographic diversity. Ultimately it may be possible for the economic sharing of call center resources using MARS for non-emergency opportunities to take advantage of time zone differences,” he said.
After proving its ability to function as designed during the East Coast’s snowstorms, Osterling said the MARS system is something he wishes all utilities could adopt.
“I must admit that the probability of using MARS during a snowstorm was far from my mind. Typically, the Washington area is subjected to violent summer thunderstorm activity,” he said. “As I recall, the last significant winter event faced by PEPCO was the Ice Storm of 1999. Having said that, MARS did exactly what it was designed for when it was called into action.”