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Utilities Can Use Emergencies to Build Customer Trust

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Nevelyn Black's picture
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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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  • Sep 2, 2021 10:15 pm GMT
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Its hurricane season and September is National Preparedness Month.  Whether your customers are facing hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms, floods or fires, how can you better reach, teach and prepare your customers?  

This week Tropical Storm Ida is pummeling the east coast and causing power outages for millions.  New York Power Authority and New York State Canal Corporation are taking proactive steps to prepare for the arrival of the storm.  Governor Kathy Hochul has directed state agencies to prepare emergency response assets in anticipation of the six or more inches of rain expected to hit the area.  The same storm left Entergy utility, in Mississippi and Louisiana, with 216 substations, 207 transmission lines and 2,000 plus miles of transmission lines in need of repair. Entergy.com explained that because of the extent of the damage and the rebuilding required, restoration and recovery will be difficult and customers should expect extended power outages for weeks.    Bad news is rarely well received but the utility is keeping their customers informed during this emergency situation. On the homepage, Deanna Rodriguez, President and CEO of Entergy New Orleans and Phillip May, president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana posted an audio only vimeo file with up-to-date restoration efforts.  Customers, like Valerie Vides of Carrollton-Riverbend, are annoyed because they pay a surcharge for storm preparedness but feel it is to no avail.  She comments, “Paying almost $400 a month with storm surcharges added, we shouldn’t have to hold our breath every time a thunderstorm, let alone a hurricane, comes in that Entergy has done what’s needed to prepare properly to keep basic services operational.”  Extended power outages create unlivable conditions.  Without power, residents can’t pump gas from service stations to keep their generators running and sewage pumping stations can’t pull wastewater from homes.

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The Trust Factor

Utilities stay in close communication with the state, county and local emergency management officials during weather events but what about the customer?  When it comes to keeping the lights on, do your customers trust you to do so?  If not, how could a more in-depth explanation of how surcharges are used ease customer concerns?  How do you reach the customer with pertinent, real-time information on preparedness and emergency response efforts?  Pennsylvania Power & Light (PPL) Electric Utilities has found a way.  According to a recent study conducted by human behavior and analytics firm Escurrent, residential customers rate PPL Electric Utilities as one of the most trusted utility brands in the United States.  How have they achieved this feat?  According to survey data, customer confidence in utilities is largely driven by increased communication about product and service options.  PPL Electric Utilities has been communicating programs that help customers with billing help, energy efficiency, and utility shopping.  “It’s really important for us to earn the trust of our customers,” said Steph Raymond, President of PPL Electric Utilities. “Despite being one of the most unique and difficult years of 2020, our team has a support program available to our customers and the work they are doing to power them safely, reliably and affordably.” So how did the become a trusted brand?  They earned it through user-friendly, ongoing, open, communication.  Customers can follow PPL Electric Utilities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get up-to-the-minute news and information, energy efficiency tips, bill help, outage updates and more.

Last month, during Tropical Storm Henri, Connecticut Governor activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center to brace for the storm.  Residents were also encouraged to download the state’s CTPrepares app for preparedness tips and what to do in an emergency situation. “We’ve learned from Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Irene that preparation at staging areas ahead of the storm making landfall is key to a quick and effective response,” Major General Evon said. “We are standing by to support the state and the lead agencies however we can and we will be prepared to bring in additional Guardsmen and resources if asked to do so.”

In the Line of Fire

Eversource is under scrutiny for its delayed response to Tropical Storm Isaias last year.  The state required the utility to upgrade their emergency response plan.  Mitch Gross, an Eversource spokesman, said company officials “began making many of these improvements (to the emergency response plan) immediately after our Isaias restoration work was complete.”   Emphasizing communication, Guilford First Selectman Matt Hoey said one of his biggest concerns with Eversource’s emergency response plan “is their ability to communicate in a timely manner so we can keep the community informed.” Addressing that very concern, an online hub was created to provide information to municipal officials quickly. The hub will be updated in real-time, including information about facility status and blocked roads.  Gross said the company has created “works directly with municipalities and first responders to prioritize public safety emergencies, clear blocked roads and speed the response to urgent repairs.”  

Paradise, California was destroyed by wildfires later attributed to PG&E’s transmission lines.  One resident was quick to defend the utility in CBS’s ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ documentary. “If it weren’t for PG&E there would be no Paradise, they are tasked with the impossible job of moving huge amounts of electricity through wilderness areas.  And when it’s all said and when it’s already dry, static electricity from anything can start a fire,” he said. The documentary discusses the risks of living in densely wooded areas, the failures of urban planning and development and it revealed that 40-50 percent of all new houses built in the last 20 years, in California, were built in the line of fire, wildfires.  Real-time information for first responders could have saved even more lives but the responsibility of prevention and preparedness must be shared. Paradise Police Chief, John Messina said plainly, “You can’t say I’m going to move to the foothills where there’s trees, brush and grass and not know that there’s a potential for wildfire.”  

Devising a Plan

Much like National Preparedness Month encourages citizens to prepare for extreme weather events.  Customer service and marketing representatives will need to devise a plan to really reach people.  Customer communication trends point to several strategies.  One such trend is, ‘Higher demand for communications agility.’  Communications regulations require that utilities provide important information, like outage and maintenance details, to consumers in extremely short timeframes. Being able to provide information quickly is also best practice for the general security and wellbeing of utility customers.  Another trend stresses the importance of ‘Hyper-personalized customer engagement touchpoints.’ Taking advantage of every opportunity to interact with your customers is key but it does present its own challenges.  In an AESP blog, the challenge of customer communication and education is explained with a Dr. Seuss classic.  “Green Eggs and Ham,” the popular children's book published by Penguin Random House LLC on August 12, 1960, paints the perfect picture.  One character persists, “I do not like green eggs and ham!” The other character insists, “Try them, try them, and you may!” The result?  “I DO like green eggs and ham!”  The poem is compared to the challenge of communication and adoption of new ideas.  The blog author concludes that you may have to nudge, prod, and cajole customers into trying new things.  The only way they will trust you and ‘try it’ is if you can relate to their interests, educate them on the benefits and continue to help them along the way.  Use the customers preferred vehicle of engagement, like texts, email, web, voice and videos.  According to Wyzowl’s 2020 survey of 800 respondents, the vast majority (86 percent) report using video as a marketing tool, and almost 100 percent say they will continue using it through 2021.  Videos can also be used to educate customers since most people consume video better than any other digital presentation method.

A Two-Way Street

Austin Energy is dealing with complaints for new construction connections.  The utility has been responding to unfavorable Yelp reviewers regarding delays and miscommunications. Austin Energy stated they understand the process can be confusing for property owners.  Austin Energy said that electricity hook up requests are up 12 to 15% since 2015 and warned that “Due to the growth in our area, there is an extended wait time for inspections.”  The utility attests that homeowners and contractors need to schedule a pre-construction meeting with the utility to streamline communication and eliminate confusion over plans. Consumers can also benefit from contacting the utility, in advance, when considering the purchase of an EV.  To make it easier for customers to learn about EVs and find the right vehicle for their needs, Austin Energy upgraded its EV Buyer’s Guide last year.  The utility also provides information on rebates for home charging.  However, buyers should do their homework before purchasing. Austin Energy offers EV owners a rebate of 50 percent of the purchase and installation cost of an approved Level 2 (240V) charging station.  Encouraging customers to keep the lines of communication open offers clear benefits to both parties.

To prevent further interruptions of service during extreme weather, PG&E will spend $15 to $30 billion on burying lines.  The work is extensive and expensive but they ‘can’t afford not to.’  Mike Beehler, national spokesman for an organization called the Power Delivery Intelligence Initiative, believes Entergy should consider doing the same. It’s been four days since Hurricane Ida wiped out power in Lousiana.  Power has been restored to a small number of homes and businesses and crews are working hard to clear fallen trees and debris from the streets.   Yesterday, the same storm brought flash flooding to New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania  and tornadoes to New Jersey.  PSEG Long Island, Con Edison, PSE&G in New Jersey and JCP&L have all reported ongoing outages.  Keeping customers abreast of the situation is paramount.

In the event of an emergency, customers need to know they can trust their utility company to provide vital information in a timely manner.  Communication can eliminate distrust, buyers remorse and unsatisfied customers but more importantly clear and direct communication from utilities can help first responders save lives.  During these extreme weather events how can your utility keep customers informed, safe and prepared?  What personalized communication tools are you using to stay connected to your customers?

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