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Don't leave your customers in the dark when the power goes out

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Eric Charette's picture
Senior Vice President & Executive Consultant GridBright

Mr. Eric J. Charette currently serves as a Senior Vice President and Executive Consultant for GridBright.  Previously, Eric was part of the Hexagon leadership team in the role of...

  • Member since 2012
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  • Apr 19, 2022
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With DistribuTECH 2022 just a few weeks away, I thought I would spend some time looking at one of the hottest trends in utility distribution – customer engagement

Once upon a time, news about current events was given to us at predetermined times.  Newspapers were delivered in the morning describing the events of the previous day and the nightly news was on television at 5, 6, and 10 to share details about the day.  TV and radio would occasionally have breaking news, but if you weren’t tuned in at the moment it was announced, you were out of luck. 

But now we live in an era where we want the news to come to us, on our terms.   We want to be alerted so that we can decide if the information is something we want to consume.  And we want to make our own rules for what information we want, how we want to consume it, and when we want to be notified about it.   Fortunately, the demand for information is equally matched with its availability to quench our insatiable thirst to stay informed. 

With so many choices for information in the digital age, service providers can differentiate themselves through targeted marketing, customer service, and by creating a relationship with their customers.  This form of interaction, known as customer engagement, has emerged as two-way communication between consumers and their service providers to share information about products and services. 

This relationship extends to the utility distribution company and its customers.  As a service provider, the utility has a strong desire to foster a positive relationship as its regular interactions with customers are often viewed negatively – when the bill is due and when the power goes out.  It is even more important for the utility to have positive customer engagement in areas where consumers do not have a choice of electricity providers.  This is because there may be a certain level of distrust, even without cause, simply because the customer did not have a choice of providers and may perceive the utility as a monopoly.

Let’s look at one of these inherently negative experiences, the dreaded power outage, and how a utility can adopt a successful customer engagement strategy to make it a less painful experience.   The customer engagement strategies will be categorized by level of industry-wide adoption, starting from those found at essentially all utilities and ranging to the more cutting-edge technologies.  

Essential

Processes and technologies that are found at almost all utilities and are essential to operations.

  • Inbound interactive voice response (IVR) systems are widespread for utility customers to report their power out.   Those who do not want to talk to someone can press a few buttons and hang up, while others who want a live person can reach a customer service agent and report the outage. 

  • During blue sky days and even small storms, most utilities now provide an initial estimated restoration time (ERT) to customers when they report a power outage. With years of historical data that categorizes outages based on the time of day they occur, the day of the week, and even geographic area, the utility can provide a very good estimate of the time it will take for power to be restored.  

Standard

Found at many utilities and are well-established standard practices.

  • Utility websites that feature a map of the service territory with outage locations are now standard from the investor-owned utility down to most municipal providers.  Each utility determines the level of detail they want to provide, keeping in mind that being too precise with outage specifics may result in a security concern for the customers being affected by the outage.   

  • Using a mobile solution integrated into the outage management system, utility crews can provide initial assessments upon arrival.  If evident, they may note the cause of the outage and provide an updated projection for when the power will be restored.  For utilities without mobile solutions, it is still standard for the crews to report back upon arrival with updates using phone or radio systems. 

  • IVR technology can also be used as an outbound form of communication.  Utilities use their IVR to automatically phone customers who called to report their power out and provide details about the current outage.  This may not be as friendly as a personal phone call, but it enables the utility to reach multiple customers simultaneously and lets the agents answer more calls which improve overall customer service. 

Common

Found at many utilities and is a common practice.

  • It is now quite common for a utility to engage customers with outage details on more than one communication channel.  This may be SMS messaging, emails, phone calls, or alerts from the utility app for smart devices. 

  • When the evolution from calling a customer on the phone transformed into multi-channel communication, it ushered in the era of preference management.  These are the systems where a customer can determine what they want to be notified of, when they want to be notified of it (or not notified), and the method of how they want to be notified.  For example, a customer may want to only receive alerts between 7 am and 10 pm on weekdays when the power is out.  But they may want a phone call at any time when the ERT is extended more than 2 hours.  To make this possible, the outage management system (which knows what customers are out) must be integrated with preference management (to know which of those customers out want to be notified and how) which must then be integrated into the customer communication system to deliver the information.  It sounds like a complicated process, but it is common practice at many utilities.  Preference management is how consumers can tailor their side of the customer engagement relationship with the utility. 

  • Post outage, it is quite common for utilities to send out customer satisfaction surveys to measure performance.  Utilities have standard targets for scores and use these reports as a method of two-way engagement, providing a means for the customer to offer feedback on the outage experience. 

Emerging

Being considered at many utilities but not part of common practices.

  • More recently, utilities have taken to social media to provide outage update details through channels such as Facebook and Twitter.   At this adoption level, it is a manual update provided by the utility media relations typically for larger-scale outages impacting a sizable number of customers. 

  • It is also an emerging engagement to provide customer-specific outage information to the customer through their secured account login on the utility website.  This is a more detailed level of information that would not be appropriate for public visibility on the utility outage website/map and is specific to their home or business.

  • In addition to providing details about the current outage through the secured portal, some utilities are beginning to share historical outage information with customers through the same portal.  This is a common inquiry of customer service to provide information about previous outages.  This may not become a common practice as the utilities that have piloted this have found that customers who want this information are often already upset about outage frequency or duration.  So, despite the utility supplying the factual information about historical outages and allowing the customers to access it on their schedule, they may be better off speaking with a person who can provide the information verbally as a way to ease the concerns of the customer. 

Innovative

Processes or technologies only being considered at the most innovative utilities.

  • Innovative utilities are looking beyond a simplistic approach for ERTs to consider additional real-time factors that may adjust the initial value.  These factors may include the ratio of crews available to the number of active outages.  It may also take into consideration the sequence of outages that are assigned to each crew and the time to repair each outage.  The travel time between each location can then be calculated based on real-time travel conditions for the best route based on the time of day.  This form of calculating advanced restoration times may turn out to be an evolution in the customer outage experience.   

  • A very cutting-edge advancement in customer engagement is the automation of outage data to social media.  Algorithms have been created to generate a meaningful, but not overly specific update, at the time the power goes out, when updates are made and when power has been restored.  This approach has been proven in test mode but has not yet moved into wide production.  The hesitancy is not due to the technology – it is mostly because utility media relations want to ensure a consistent message is delivered to the customers across all platforms.  An automated protocol puts the integrity of outage information at risk, especially if pushing it out too soon. 

From a customer perspective, they want to know what the utility knows, and at the same time that the utility knows it.  This requires a level of transparency that creates an emotional engagement.  If the consumer trusts that the utility is leveraging technology to meet their demand for truthful and timely information, they are far more likely to accept when an outage occurs.  This is not an easy endeavor for a utility as they are given very little latitude on the information’s accuracy.  Some customer service studies note that the window of tolerance on ERTs is a narrow range of -60 minutes to +30 minutes (if power is restored more than an hour before the ERT, satisfaction is reduced as customers question the validity of the initial ERT.  If power is restored more than 30 minutes after the ERT, the customer questions why another update was not provided).  But when customers are making critical decisions based on the projected restore time, frustration can set in quickly and turn an interaction from positive to negative very quickly. 

A utility does not fully control its customer perception, but they certainly can influence it with its approach to customer engagement.  This should start with the creation of a customer engagement strategy that spans several years and is flexible based on current technology.   At each level, the utility will likely see an increase in customer satisfaction – but this will eventually plateau as customers begin to take for granted the new service and the demand for more information will then occur.  If a utility remains at a level for too long, momentum will be lost, and the customer will quickly forget all of the progress made on customer engagement. 

Excitement certainly will fill the halls of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas next month as delegates return in person to DistribuTECH.  Many will be seeking to learn how distribution utilities have adopted technology to streamline or optimize their business operations.  There is no doubt that vendor technology that enables customer engagement will be one of the hottest topics on the show flow.  Let’s hope that we get alerts to let us know where and when to be for more information! 

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Thank Eric for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 19, 2022

But now we live in an era where we want the news to come to us, on our terms.   We want to be alerted so that we can decide if the information is something we want to consume.  And we want to make our own rules for what information we want, how we want to consume it, and when we want to be notified about it.   Fortunately, the demand for information is equally matched with its availability to quench our insatiable thirst to stay informed. 

I thought this was interesting-- I find I'm always balancing between wanting all the information and then getting frustrated when I have too much info (too many emails or alerts that I myself signed up for). But making the level of communication customizable, as well as the method of communication, can provide some great benefits to the customer experience. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Apr 21, 2022

Eric, How about providing Battery Storage at customer homes. They could use it to cover Duck Curve power sags and brownouts yet have it as power back up if there is an outage. Good for everyone. 

Eric Charette's picture
Eric Charette on Apr 28, 2022

My main concern for the average residential customer is that the "pain" of an outage (either duration or frequency) would not justify the cost of battery storage.  Based on 2020 data for investor owned utilities in the US, the average customer experienced a total outage duration of 391 minutes (w/MED) and 1.6 outages.  That is an ASAI of 99.926% (aka three 9's) which is pretty good!  That number increases to 99.964% without major event days.  I will speculate that most people are willing to have that kind of reliability without having to spend any more on their energy costs (e.g. battery storage).  Of course, for those who do want/need 100% uptime, then there are options to help them ride through outages.  This is just my take of course and I would welcome any other opinions on this.  

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