Outages are a major concern for utilities. Utilities are often judged based on their reliability, their restoration times after an interruption, and the quality of their outage-related communications with customers and other interested parties. In this article, we will focus on methods to ensure high quality outage-related communications.
Utilities need to put many processes in place to provide excellent communications during an outage event. The organization needs a system for preparing the message, delivering the communication, and reviewing the success of the process.
The primary components of successful outage communications are:
Preparation of Timely and Accurate Information – providing accurate and timely information that is consistent through all channels,
Delivery via Effective Channels and Channel Promotion – putting the most effective channels in place supported by proven processes and technology and ensuring that all customer segments understand what channels and information are available to them, and
Review through Measuring Success and Implementing Improvements – measuring and evaluating each step along the way to look for improvement opportunities.
Preparation of Timely and Accurate Information
When an outage occurs, customers want to know when power will be restored. It is important to find a balance between providing information quickly and providing information accurately.
There are three primary types of outages: planned outages, storm-related outages, and unplanned outages. Planned outages allow the utility to provide information customized to the customer or customer type that will be experiencing the outage. Information can be made available in advance of the outage, clear explanation can be given, and a realistic timeframe for power restoration can be provided before the outage occurs. For storm-related outages, utilities can proactively prepare and share customer education plans. These plans can help guide customers through preparing for a possible outage and provide tips to ‘survive the storm’. This allows customers to understand that an outage may be likely given certain weather conditions, make plans for what to do should an outage occur, and understand what channels of communication are available during an outage event. During an unplanned outage, less information is available for the customer, which can lead to increased strain on the communications channels. In these situations, customers will be wondering about the cause of the outage as well as questioning the duration of the outage.
Regardless of the type of outage, for customers the primary aim is knowing when the power will be restored. Developing and sharing accurate and timely estimated restoration times with customers is key. An important feature in outage communications is the “one voice” requirement. The “one voice” requirement ensures that customers receive the same message from each communications channel and that the message is consistent over time. Utilities will want to develop a single source of information that each channel accesses to provide updates to the customer.
Through benchmarking surveys, First Quartile has learned that utilities provide outage restoration times for almost every outage. These restoration times are provided very quickly and are often inaccurate. Benchmarking shows that issuing estimates too quickly can lead to lower accuracy. While subsequent estimates are likely more accurate, the customer experience is driven by the first estimate provided. Measuring estimate accuracy based upon a final estimate doesn’t adequately capture the customer experience. Utilities have one time, the first time, to get the restoration time correct. After that, customers start to lose faith in the accuracy of the estimate. A beneficial step for utilities would be to focus on providing higher accuracy in their estimates by waiting until they have enough information to properly estimate the restoration time. Utilities can develop an education and marketing campaign that helps customers to understand that faster isn’t always better.
Delivery via Effective Channels and Channel Promotion
Communication is key. The utility needs to be able to handle inbound communications from customers and develop outbound communications and information sources that customers can access. There are multiple communication channels utilities can use for these outage communications, including:
Social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)
Website, Mobile Web, and Mobile Apps
Push notifications (IVR-initiated calls, Texts, and App notifications)
Outbound person-to-person calls
For communications to be effective, proper preparation needs to take place before delivery. It is vital that each channel can handle the volume of incoming communications from customers. Each message needs to be developed with clear expectations for deliverables and performance. Communications need to work in concert to ensure that customers get the same information from all channels. The success of this unified message will require technology components that are properly integrated with Outage Management Systems and that are aligned and managed on a real-time basis during the entire outage process.
Channel promotion is essential to ensure customers have access to the necessary avenues of communication when an outage occurs. Ideally, a customer will receive all the information they need without having to contact the utility. For this to work, customers need to be enrolled in the correct outbound communications programs. In some cases, customers will be required to sign-up or opt-in to receive information through a specific channel. Processes will need to be put in place to communicate the availability of that channel and the customer’s need to actively request access to information through that channel.
Once channels are in place and customers have been made aware of their availability, utilities can start using the channels to deliver information. Utilities need to be prepared that every push notification can lead to an incoming communication. Anticipating what customers might do with a received notification and providing that information ahead of time can reduce incoming communications related to outgoing notifications.
The final step in the communication process is to ensure that power restoration has been completed successfully. Communicating with customers to allow them to verify that they have power allows a full circle. The customer is kept in the loop until all parties agree that the situation is back to normal.
Review through Measuring Success and Implementing Improvements
Now that all communications have been shared with customers, the utility needs to review the process to determine success rates and possible areas of improvement. Areas for review could include:
Reach: did all customers receive all communications they were supposed to receive and were they able to access these communications?
Timeliness of delivery: was information providing in a timely manner?
Accuracy of the information: were estimates reasonably correct and unified?
Customer satisfaction with the communications and overall process: did customers feel informed and were they able to find the information they needed without initiating incoming communications with the utility?
Once these areas have been reviewed, steps can be taken to fix any shortcomings, improving the outage communication process.
Given the importance of outage communications for customer satisfaction, every effort should be taken to develop a strong outage response network. This can be accomplished by first having a process for preparing consistent, accurate, and timely information. Secondly, ensure delivery of this message by establishing and promoting effective channels of communication. Finally, review the success of the system by analyzing the quality of the message and the effectiveness of the distribution of information across the customer base. Additional changes can be made, as needed, to ensure customers are able to access high quality outage-related communications.
Check back on a regular basis or sign up to receive updates. In the future, we’ll be sharing various key components of outage communications, including the use of technology, promotion of communication channels, unified information, and measurement of communications success.