Chartwell’s 13th annual Outage Communications Conference features innovation

By Russ Henderson, Senior Research Manager –

Last week in Chicago, the leading edge of outage communications in the industry was on full display during our 13th annual Outage Communications Conference.

No one knows outage communications better than Chartwell and its community of utility experts. Our research, events and unique peer networking model have helped utilities become and remain leaders in outage communications for more than a decade. This year’s conference was our largest and most informative, yet. Many new utilities took the opportunity to plug into our network, and many old friends reconnected to discuss their latest innovations.

"Our journey to excellence really started with connecting with customers, and trying to meet them where they are." - Nichole Owens, Vice President of Customer Channels at ComEd

Our keynote speaker was Nichole Owens, Vice President of Customer Channels at ComEd, who discussed the company’s journey to improving its outage communications starting with a drop in satisfaction following record-breaking outages in 2011.

Not only did customers feel that ComEd wasn’t restoring their outages quickly enough, they also felt that the utility wasn’t doing a good job of communicating with them. The utility found that customers’ expectations had changed in recent years, and they wanted information from ComEd on-demand and through their channel of choice.

“They were really losing patience with us,” Owens said. “Our journey to excellence really started with connecting with customers, and trying to meet them where they are.”

Since that time, ComEd has developed a well-earned reputation for innovation.

The company was among the first in the industry to launch outage reporting via Twitter direct message, and has developed several other groundbreaking customer engagement tools including mobile apps that have received among the highest customer ratings in the industry; personalized reliability reports to help customers see the impact of the company’s electric grid investments on their electric service; chatbots for outage and billing communications; and outage reporting that integrates a meter ping, allowing customers to resolve their own outages and preventing ComEd truck rolls.

The company strives to attend to every detail of the customer experience across all these channels, Owens said.

For example, if a customer restores his or her own power outage during the reporting process described above, “we send them a ‘thank you,’” she said.

The conference featured multiple presentations from this year’s Chartwell Best Practices Gold Award Winner in Outage Communications, Southern California Edison. SCE not only presented during a general session, but also facilitated a workshop on becoming a leader in outage communications and joined Message Broadcast to talk about wildfire communications.

"Your single most important relationship you have... is with transmission and distribution. If you don't have that relationship, your customers will suffer." - Tomaso Giannelli, Senior Manager, SCE

“If you take one thing away from what I’ve said, I want it to be this: Your single most important relationship you have, and I know this is a little controversial, is not with your customers. The single most important relationship you have is with transmission and distribution. If you don’t have that relationship, your customers will suffer,” said Tomaso Giannelli, Senior Manager at SCE.

“In 2010, we were terrible at communicating with customers. There was a huge disconnect between our customer service and our T&D colleagues. I was one of those T&D colleagues,” he said.

Since then, SCE has built a communications team that bridges both the customer service and T&D sides of the business. That relationship is key to the company’s steady improvement that has made it a leader in outage communications, he said.

“Just when we thought we were doing things right, we got hit by wildfires,” Giannelli said. “And that kind of changed everything about how we do business. So, SCE is not just an electricity company anymore. We’re now meteorologists, fire scientists and firefighters! One of the things we had to come up with, which is against everything we have stood for over the past 130 years, is something called public safety power shutoff, which is de-energizing customers in advance of high fire danger.”

The need for a communications tool that could reach customers quickly and effectively led SCE to launch an effort with Message Broadcast that “enabled us to get to the next level of outage communications.”

Last year, despite wildfires, thousands of public safety shutoffs and other unprecedented challenges, SCE implemented several projects that delivered highly effective improvements to the outage customer experience.

Among SCE’s outstanding achievements was the development of an Outage Progress Tracker (aka “The Pizza Tracker”) to provide a low-effort way for customers to track their outages.

The company also developed a smartphone application for field crews called C3 (Customer Crew Connect) which automated processes that were formerly manual, significantly reducing the time required to make accurate outage updates by helping crew members avoid busy phone lines, miscommunications and errors. SCE’s field app development started with listening to staff about their own pain points.

“They were telling us, ‘Hey, I’m on hold with the dock sometimes 15 minutes to an hour just to make an outage update,’” Sandra Labib, Project Manager at SCE. “We knew we had to fix that.”

So, the C3 app was designed to allow crew foremen to update outage information directly to the OMS, which then automatically uses the information to update the outage map and other customer-facing channels, she said.

The conference also featured a live demonstration of Oncor’s Wiredown Unit On-Site Process Improvement Tool (WUPIT), a platform that allows customers to safely share digital images of damaged power lines which took home the Silver Outage Communications Award.

“Not only does this improve safety for us, it also allows us to provide better service to the customer,” said Boyd Greene, Director of East Distribution Operations at Oncor. “This was also a quick project and relatively inexpensive. Start to finish, it cost about $150,000, and we finished in about six months.”

Outage push alerts have become common in the industry – about 84% of the largest utilities offer push alerts, according to Chartwell research. But leading utilities continue to improve their outage alerts.

Florida Power & Light presented on the company’s Bronze Outage Communications Award-winning, patented iNotify Processing Engine Logic, which enables the utility to deliver timely, proactive outage status updates to customers by integrating smart meter pinging and messaging, customer communications preferences and restoration status information from its OMS.

The conference also included talks by our valued sponsors, who make it all possible – KUBRAMessage BroadcastAgent 511Questline and Mindgrub.

The leading utility brands mentioned above – ComEd, SCE, Oncor, FPL – are among the members of Chartwell’s Outage Communications Leadership Council, which is a utilities-only peer group that helps companies become and remain leaders in outage communications.

We hope you will join us at future events, or on the monthly calls of our council, to learn how to take your organization’s outage communications to the next level. Contact me if you have questions.

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