How hard is it to pick up a phone?

I have an old and good friend that I don’t call nearly often enough. On the increasingly rare occasion that I do call, I get the same question, right off the bat, nearly every time: “How hard is it to pick up a phone, Steve?”

Apparently, picking up the phone can be pretty difficult for me. My friend, fortunately, is the forgiving type.

Utility customers, on the other hand, are rarely as forgiving when you don’t answer their calls. And the difficulties I experience picking up the phone, don’t even come close to what utilities face during outage situations.

When Hurricanes Isidore and Lili hit Entergy’s territory within a week of each other last fall, the company handled more than 230,000 customer calls. Hit with that call volume, many companies’ call centers would fold under the pressure, but Entergy performed remarkably. During Isidore, 92.7 percent of customers’ calls were handled within 30 seconds; during Lili, 90 percent were handled within 30 seconds.

In this issue, you’ll read about improvements that Newfoundland Power has made over the course of the last five years to its customer service system. Before Newfoundland Power made its contact center improvements, it answered less than half of its customers’ calls in under a minute. Since the improvements, the company has bettered that number significantly. Today, Newfoundland Power answers 80 percent of its calls within 40 seconds.

It may seem like a small thing to answer a customer’s call within a certain amount of time, but to the customer who just lost power during a midsummer thunderstorm (right in the middle of a deciding game in the NBA Finals, if they have my luck), every extra minute spent listening to on-hold music equals a one-degree increase on the anger meter. A busy signal can propel the customer’s mood into the range of desperate rage. At this point, even something as simple as a pre-recorded message letting the customer know that you are aware of the outage can have a remarkably soothing effect. A live customer service rep armed with an estimated power restoration time can make customers almost gleeful.

When I spoke with John Sherrod, Entergy’s “storm boss,” for this issue’s article on mutual assistance, he stressed the importance of call handling during crisis situations. In the minds of your customers, how well you communicate during an outage can be as important as how quickly you restore power.

“Through the years, we’ve all learned the hard way, if you don’t answer the phones, whatever else you do, the people are going to think you’re taking the phone off the hook–that you’re not taking the storm seriously,” Sherrod said.

You may do a fantastic job restoring power in the wake of a storm, but, as Sherrod told me, “If people don’t think you are paying attention, it doesn’t matter how good you are.”

Whether it’s through hiring additional call center staff, outsourcing call center functions, or implementing an IVR or voice-recognition system, power providers must have the capability in place to handle customers calls during peak calling times. Customers don’t often reward good service, but they’ll go out of their way to penalize bad service. If you can’t pick up the phone when your customers call, their next call might be to the state PUC.

Steven Brown, Senior Associate Editor

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