Outage communications conference takeaways – accuracy is good, but conversations are better

By Russ Henderson, Senior Research Analyst –

The customer communications transformation that the utility industry is undergoing isn’t slowing down at all, and outage communications is at the center of that transformation.

That was clear from last week’s presentations at Chartwell’s 11th annual Outage Communications Conference, which featured so many fantastic presentations — not to mention a mind-blowing panel discussion moderated by Ike Pigott of Alabama Power — that I cannot call this list of takeaways inclusive by any means. I plan to touch on some items not mentioned here in future blog posts, but I hope these highlights will give you some of the flavor of the event:

Customers want a conversation, not 100% accuracy

While accuracy in customer messaging is important, it’s also important not to get so caught up in providing accurate messaging that one loses sight of the customer experience.

Hydro Ottawa has placed a greater value on communicating through video because a visual experience can create an emotional connection with the customer. A single video that educates customers about outages, if it is fun and interesting, can do more to establish a relationship with customers than any number of push alerts sent after an outage takes place, said Dan Seguin, media and public affairs manager at Hydro Ottawa.

Even more important is the opportunity that technology now gives utilities to bring customers closer to their utility. A recent drone video at Chaudière Falls, where Hydro Ottawa has six run-of-the-river hydroelectric generation plants, has garnered more than 30,000 views.

“You have to build up those ‘love miles’ with the customer before the outage happens, so that when it does happen, they are going to be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Seguin said. “Customers want to feel like they are part of a conversation.”

Xcel Energy came to a similar conclusion as it held customer panels last year with the goal of rewriting the messages that the company sends to customers. Megan Scheller, customer experience manager at Xcel Energy, said the company had become so geared toward its accuracy measures that employees were afraid to provide information to customers. And Xcel customers indicated that they simply wanted to feel like they were being kept informed.

Xcel changed the language of its outage alerts. Now, even when the company has no new information to provide to customers, a message is sent, explaining that crews are assessing damage and that Xcel “will provide a restoration estimate as soon as we can.”

Messages were also modified to include apologies to customers for the inconvenience of the outage, and the company apologizes when the estimated time of restoration changes.

Communicate internally

Before a company can communicate effectively with customers, it is important to first communicate internally. When it comes to power outages, this can be challenging. Outage intelligence requires information from dozens of systems that aren’t necessarily integrated effectively for communicating with customers. Also, the informational needs of different members of the utility organization aren’t the same.

Wayne Boone, principal at Alabama Power, demonstrated his company’s own solution to these problems. Alabama Power has incorporated the outage management system’s interface into a near-real-time dashboard providing situational awareness information in the form of a web application that is compatible with tablet mobile devices as well as desktop. The dashboard is utilized by many groups within the organization including executive management, field technicians, key accounts managers and customer service representatives.

Ike Pigott, communications strategist at Alabama Power, said Boone’s dashboard is invaluable to him in managing communications along multiple channels. He has set up alerts in the dashboard tailored to his needs as a communicator, and these keep him informed in near real-time, so that he doesn’t have to rely on others for information, he said.

Communicating internally is also about raising awareness. One presenter said that, at a company meeting with more than 100 executive leaders, she asked how many people in the room were aware that the company was providing alerts to customers. Only a quarter or so raised their hands. Utilities must communicate internally before they can inform customers effectively, she said.

Constantly analyze and improve

Even after a utility has improved outage communications along all channels, constant analysis and improvement are necessary.

David Schoenberg, director of customer experience at Pacific Gas & Electric, talked about his utility’s success in dealing with this problem. In recent years, PG&E has delivered among its highest-ever levels of reliability, but surveys showed that customers were becoming less satisfied with the way that the company communicated about the outages that they were experiencing.

A cross-channel analysis on a year’s worth of reliability and outage communication data revealed a few significant problems. First, 40% of the proactive push alert notifications that had been sent to customers were sent in error – they were “false positives” informing customers that they were without power when they were not. Second, the analysis also showed that only half of the customers who should be receiving notifications were actually receiving them. And third, customers experiencing an outage were seeking information more quickly than they received it.

Schoenberg talked about the combination of efforts through which PG&E was able to improve message timeliness by 20%, accuracy by 25% and the number of customers reached by 25%. Satisfaction with the company’s reliability was also increased to 80.8%, an all-time high for PG&E, Schoenberg said.

If you attended last week’s conference, what were your favorite sessions? What lessons did you learn? We would love to hear in the comments below!

 

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