Informing Customers When the Lights Go Out:Kansas City Power & Light’s Outage Communication Service

By Stephen Diebold, Kansas City Power & Light, and Jack Dugan, Logica

Not too long ago, customer service was synonymous with personal service. Knowledgeable company representatives promptly answered customer calls. Today, we live in an age of nested “if-then” statements where consumer service has been replaced with automated-voice-response menu navigation. It is increasingly more difficult to speak to anyone about anything at any time.

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Few organizations buck the trend, but one that is putting the customer back into customer service is Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L), a company committed to understanding its various constituencies and, through this understanding, informing the communities it serves before they call.

It was not always so. Historically, KCP&L suffered from the criticism levied by its consumer base of commercial, industrial and residential customers; the media; public utilities commission; and surveys conducted by reputable nationwide organizations. Particularly regarding outages, customers stated that they were confused about information provided by the media, information they received over the phone when they called a KCP&L office and the information they received from crews in the field. To address the public relations dilemma, KCP&L launched a service program that began with customer research.

Understanding the Customer

Customer focus groups consisting of residential, small-to-medium businesses and large-business customers pointed out how differently KCP&L and its customers define a power outage. To customers, an outage is any time their business or home life is interrupted for any period of time. To KCP&L, a power outage is an event lasting five minutes or longer. Shorter outages are considered “momentaries” or those times when the system is attempting to clear a fault and restore power.

Not surprisingly, KCP&L determined that customers want consistent, accurate information. They especially want to know:

  • If KCP&L is aware of the outage,
  • On which side of the meter the problem resides,
  • What caused the problem, and
  • The estimated time of restoration.

All customers want answers to these four basic questions. But the relative importance of the responses, timing associated with the responses and preferred communication medium differed among residential, small- and medium-sized businesses and large commercial and industrial customers. Through these focus groups, a picture emerged that suggested different messaging for each customer group.

Outages impact different customers in different ways. Residential customers emphasized heating, cooling, refrigeration and the potential need for alternative living arrangements. Commercial customers were concerned about the loss of security systems. Small-to-medium business customers focused on lost revenue. Large-business customers were concerned about product and equipment damage that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Customer expectations of what KCP&L should do during outages differ based on their needs. Residential customers trust that power will be restored in a timely manner and often do not call the utility. These customers are simply concerned about estimated time of restoration. Small- and medium-sized business customers want to talk with a representative instead of an automated-voice-response unit. They want to understand the cause of the outage and know the estimated time of restoration. Large-business customers want to have an assigned account representative or a direct phone line to the dispatcher to get immediate information about the outage. They are as concerned about power quality as they are about estimated time of restoration and the cause of the outage.

Program Description

Utility customers want accurate, detailed and frequent outage information. The challenge is delivering various levels of information to a large number of external customers, as well as employees from the overhead line crew to the call center representative to the CEO. The KCP&L strategy involves push technology to inform large customers well before they request information. To that end, KCP&L, in partnership with Obvient Strategies, constructed a “real-time” data warehouse using Obvient Strategies’ FocalPoint business intelligence model (BIM) to store and filter specific outage information for delivery to the appropriate customer at the appropriate time in a format chosen by the customer.

The FocalPoint platform, or outage reporting system (ORS), is the repository of outage information and subsequent customer notifications consolidated by the outage management system (OMS). These are obtained from various input sources, including KCP&L customer service call center, local 911 call center operators relaying information from police and fire departments, the interactive voice-response system (IVR) and high-volume call-answering service (HVCA), KCP&L customer Web portal and automated meter reading (AMR). The process tracks all outage events from the occasional flicker to the extended major storm.

Additionally, ORS links all information associated with the initial outage, including work conducted by field crews and updates to KCP&L’s customer self-service portal, AccountLink Advantage. Customers register their outage notification preferences through AccountLink Advantage and specify the information they would like regarding an outage, including:

  • Who receives notices,
  • Specific premise(s),
  • Alternative messages,
  • Preferred delivery medium (e-mail, page, text message or call), and
  • Timing of initial notification and subsequent updates.

There are six possible messages customers can receive:

  • KCP&L confirmation of the outage,
  • Estimated restoration time,
  • Confirmation of dispatched crew,
  • Confirmation of power restoration,
  • Outage problem summary, or
  • Hourly updates.

Since program inception March 22, 2007, KCP&L has disseminated more than 50,000 messages, a sample of which is, “KCP&L is aware of a power problem on circuit number 1111 at 123 Elm Street as of 10:20 on March 5, 2008.”

Forty percent of KCP&L’s large customers have subscribed to the service. Not only have the initial focus groups blossomed into a program service, but more important, they symbolize a community-outreach program. Consumers may receive such messages through various media; the choice is the customer’s. ORS manages both the association of outage details and customer details and the manner in which outage information is disseminated to the customer base.

In addition to the external system user base of residential, commercial and industrial customers, KCP&L has addressed an equally important constituency, the KCP&L internal user of outage information–our employees.

To dispel criticisms concerning confusing, conflicting and misleading information, KCP&L and Obvient Strategies developed a portfolio of desktop digital dashboards that ensure information consistency among all KCP&L employees who have contact with customers during outages. Through the presentation of clean, consistent data, all KCP&L employees can view the number of residential and large-business customers, by service center, impacted by an outage. Every customer facing an employee has the same set of digital dashboards or views into the same data set. Accordingly, anyone at any moment can view and understand the work status of assigned crews and whose power is being restored. (Figure 1 is representative of the employee digital dashboards.)

Figure 1. Personnell Screen Shot
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Figure 2 is what KCP&L customers can access through the PowerWatch link at Hits to this Web site increase as the number of reported outages grows. The local news media also use this graphic during their news broadcast.

Figure 2. PowerWatch
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Program Benefits

KCP&L’s automated self-service outage communication service is free to large customers. The integration of multiple systems and the creation of one data repository, the ORS, provide a platform for consistent, accurate and timely communication to all customers and employees. Today, KCP&L routinely disseminates accurate, real-time customer outage information. Its automated outage communication service allows large customers to take ownership by registering to receive outage information by phone, e-mail or text message on our self-service Web site, AccountLink Advantage.

The ORS matches outage data coming into the operational data warehouse with the notifications and updates sent to customers to ensure that appropriate information reaches the correct person at the correct time using the correct delivery medium.

Today, KCP&L provides the following information to its employees from one central repository, Obvient Strategies’ ORS:

  • The total number of customers experiencing outages–by location,
  • The number of crews actively restoring power and the number of available crews,
  • The cause of the outage when known,
  • A search tool with drill-down and drill-through capability, available on the desktop dashboard to locate specific customer information,
  • Outage information tied to the customer information system for each customer,
  • The locations and circuit connectivity of customers plotted on street maps for dispatchers,
  • The average number of outages during the past 24 hours, and
  • Links to weather radar and forecast information.

The outage communication service has spawned internal operating efficiencies as well; KCP&L has delivered more than 50,000 messages in various media since program inception. Today, KCP&L routinely informs customers of power outages, restoration steps and a summary of the actions taken. In previous years, large customers would call their account representatives to get this information. During high-volume events, this often led to delayed responses, which affected customer satisfaction. Through ongoing focus groups involving all community participants, KCP&L continues to refine the program and encourage increased participation from its customer base.

Tangible Results

In 2006, KCP&L surveyed large-business customers to measure their satisfaction with outage communications. On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is “not at all satisfied” and 5 is “extremely satisfied,” the average score was 3.9. Following implementation of the outage communication service, KCP&L conducted another survey with those customers enrolled and using the outage communication service. The satisfaction score rose to 4.6, an 18 percent improvement.

Customer receptivity to the program exceeded expectations, and customer feedback among all segments of the KCP&L customer base has been positive. Property-management companies agree that KCP&L’s outage communication service provides valuable information that’s shared with tenants. The outage communication service is now a community lightning rod, a symbol of the partnership forged between KCP&L and the communities it serves.

The educational community finds the service equally helpful. School administrators now have access to information that maps outages throughout the entire city, fostering good decisions regarding the safety of students.

Diebold is the manager of real-time systems for Kansas City Power & Light Company (KCPL). His responsibilities include managing, among other systems, KCPL’s energy- and outage-management systems.

Dugan is an executive consultant in the consulting and technology services practice of Logica’s energy and utilities division in North America.

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