by Ellen Greevey, Twenty First Century Communications
Mutual assistance is the cornerstone of an industry that values safety and service. It is practiced by all utilities during crises.
Until now, mutual assistance has meant line crews, contractors, trucks and equipment or other resources directly related to restoring power.
-We would always send our linemen and crews to help each other get the lights back on, said Wesley Higgins, Alabama Power technology analyst.
On the customer-service side of an outage, though, utilities also need support. Higgins is one of many utility employees who believe in the latest trend.
Hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and other disasters consistently result in extended outages and lengthy restoration periods for utilities all over the United States. Changing weather patterns and earlier, longer storm seasons have exacerbated the problem.
Winter 2007-08 saw major storms throughout the Midwest, which required extensive mutual assistance in the field. Add to that Hurricane Ike’s damage and extended outages from Texas to New York.
In addition to the physical task of restoring power, these extended outages affect utility companies’ ability to maintain business operations and provide the level of service that customers expect.
Storms cause unplanned spikes in utility call traffic that can quickly overwhelm call centers. Most U.S. utilities manage sudden, high call volumes with interactive voice response (IVR) tools. Automation has increased efficiency and customer satisfaction. Lately, however, outages have extended into days and weeks. This is when utility customers most need to speak with live customer-service professionals (CSPs).
The 2004 hurricane season was particularly tough in the southeast. Hurricanes Charlie, Frances, Jeanne and others provided a new perspective on utilities’ needs during and after major storms.
Call center support became the primary lesson learned for Tampa Electric Co. (TECO). During previous emergencies, TECO staffed its call center with employees from departments such as regulatory affairs, accounting and legal. The company learned that to meet customers’ needs, however, actual CSPs with skills and experience must answer those calls to calm callers. They know how to express empathy with customers during their initial fear, anger or worry about outages and other service-related incidents. CSPs can walk customers through their available options, and they know how to get to the real issues: Is a wire down? Is a transformer blown? Does the customer need assistance, or should he or she leave the area in the interest of safety?
In 2005 Barbara Powers, TECO director of customer services, and Al Osterling, general supervisor of project development at Pepco Holdings Inc. (PHI), explored flying customer service representatives from one utility to another to provide call center support. TECO and PHI joined other utilities in the Southeast Electric Exchange (SEE), with whom they already had a mutual assistance agreement to support fellow members by sending field crews to help restore power in damaged areas.
The team recognized, however, that transporting CSPs to storm-impacted areas would have its own challenges:
- It would add to the receiving utilities’ logistical problems,
- Infrastructure in affected areas might be destroyed, and
- Hotels might be filled to capacity with displaced locals.
There were additional technical hurdles:
- Responding CSPs must be trained on local systems, and
- Responding CSPs would need secure access to back-end systems.
The SEE’s mutual assistance team explored a virtual call center using telephony and the Internet. Was there a common thread among utilities that could facilitate this? Could this type of program be developed alongside existing IVR systems for outage reporting?
The team found the link among many utility companies: Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC), provider of the High Volume Call Answering (HVCA) system.
TFCC viewed the challenge as a logical evolution of its HVCA system that handles outage calls with automation. Although initial outage reports can be gathered through HVCA, utility customers need to speak with live personnel as an outage continues. The company and the SEE’s consortium devised a call center mutual-assistance strategy.
A task force of TFCC utility communications experts and personnel from SEE utilities identified requirements, customer needs and potential challenges. Obvious obstacles were that utilities use different methods to report outages and exchange information, and utilities wishing to participate are served by disparate long-distance telecom carriers. No infrastructure connected utilities’ communications to one another.
The solution had to provide support on short notice, minimize or eliminate logistical challenges, include a common outage-response process, use trained utility CSPs and leverage existing technologies.
TFCC developed a practical, cost-effective way for utilities to help one another in call centers. Working with more than 80 U.S. utilities and having the infrastructure to communicate with most utility companies’ back-end systems, TFCC maintains network capacity to handle more than 200,000 calls an hour and can move calls among various carriers. Collaboration among TFCC, TECO and other stakeholder utilities resulted in the Mutual Assistance Routing System (MARS).
MARS enables utilities to automatically redirect high volumes of outage calls to other utilities during crises and peak activity. When needed, requesting utilities call upon responding utilities to answer a designated number of incoming customer calls. Because TFCC can move calls across disparate telecom carriers, rerouting calls among utilities is no longer an obstacle.
Responding utility CSPs gather information from customers via a simple Web-based form—a standardized input screen that all utilities can use. Minimal training is required. MARS lets CSPs deliver restoration information directly to customers. Then the system seamlessly feeds data directly into the requesting utility’s internal systems and generates outage tickets.
Pepco, ACE/Delmarva, American Electric Power (AEP) and TECO have signed on as full participants. Southern Co. and Entergy have signed on as responders only. MARS is live in the eastern United States, ready to handle calls at ACE/Delmarva, Pepco and TECO. Entergy and AEP are in the implementation process.
It hasn’t been necessary to activate MARS in a real emergency, but the system has undergone end-to-end exercises. Mock outage calls were routed to responding utilities that handled them using the system. CSRs involved in the tests were pleased with the system’s intuitiveness and ease of use.
-Very little training is involved. It’s a browser-based system, said Rob Cheripko, AEP managing director of customer services. -The CSRs just follow a call guide, enter data, answer questions and move on. Those were the main selling points for us.
Higgins said the system works better as participation increases because utilities share the load.
-The beauty of the Mutual Assistance Routing System is that the more utilities sign up across the United States, the more effective it becomes, he said.
If AEP had the problem, it could notify utilities with which it has agreements. AEP might pick up 25 agents from Southern Co., 10 at Delmarva, 15 at Pepco, etc. Because the system works over phone lines and the Internet, distance is no longer an obstacle for mutual assistance. Support can extend nationwide. CSRs in sunny California can handle customer calls for northeastern utilities during a major ice storm.
-MARS is a great way for utilities to be able to provide mutual assistance in a manner that has never really been considered before, Higgins said. -Now we can use MARS to make sure our customers get the personal attention they need and are able to report vital information to us.
The Mutual Assistance Routing System:
- Leverages existing technology,
- Eliminates travel, housing and training costs,
- Enables rapid deployment of responding utilities,
- Features a common user guide and training program,
- Uses standardized Web browser screens, and
- Provides live-agent response by experts on utility matters.
Ellen Grevey is director of corporate communications at TFCC. Reach her at email@example.com