In the name of competition, utilities are scrambling to find ways to satisfy existing customers and attract new ones. In the past two or three years, traditional utilities, as well as new energy service providers have invested billions of dollars in new call center and billing technologies, attempting to improve customer service. Many have created Web sites to make it easier for their customers to pay bills and gather information. In addition, some have spent money researching and developing new value-added products, hoping to find something to offer their customers that will set them apart from the competition.
While all of these investments are worthwhile, there is another area of customer service that utilities cannot afford to overlook-reliability. It has been almost one year since areas of New York and Chicago were hit by blackouts. These power disruptions left residential customers stranded in high rise buildings, sweltering in the heat. They also brought many commercial and industrial customers’ businesses to a standstill. These blackouts were more than just a slight inconvenience; for many, they were intolerable.
Chicago’s mayor blasted Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) and the blackouts made headlines all over the country. As you’ll see in this issue’s news section, ComEd has since spent more than $1.5 billion to improve its transmission and distribution (T&D) system. It has also developed contingency/emergency plans that can be implemented to curtail power use during peak demand periods or to minimize the impact of equipment failures and power disruptions on its customers.
Even though ComEd has improved the time it takes workers to respond to outages and restore power, and even though its work crews can be seen all over the city making improvements to increase system reliability, it will be a long time before customers and city, state and federal officials forget last summer’s outages. The utility’s reputation with its customers has been damaged, and it will take a long time for ComEd to regain its credibility.
In an AMR Research report issued this past winter, the infrastructure analysis firm predicted that widespread electric power disruptions will occur in North America over the next five years due to T&D system inadequacies. If this prediction holds true, situation’s similar to ComEd’s will not be unusual.
Therefore, as utilities consider how they will spend their money and how they are going to satisfy their customers, they may want to consider the consequences of letting their T&D infrastructures decay as they spend money on billing systems, call centers and Web technology. As I mentioned earlier, these items are certainly important, but chances are they won’t build customer loyalty without reliable service. I doubt that customers will care about how much information shows up on their bill, if they have to read it by candlelight. Nor will they be very impressed with their electric utility’s great interactive Web site, if they have no electricity to run their computers.
Poles, wires and transformers are not trendy, cutting edge technologies and do very little to impress customers, but they are critical when it comes to quality customer service.