Three tips for effective outage communications

By Russ Henderson, Senior Industry Analyst

No one in the utility industry knows more about outage communications than Chartwell. Our 10th annual Outage Communications Conference – which will take place Nov. 3-4 in Phoenix – is already shaping up to be among our strongest, and we still have nearly four months to plan and to continue to book speakers who can share the best stories from the leading utilities in the United States and Canada.

The developing agenda for the day-and-a-half event already features speakers from industry leaders like Duke Energy, Xcel Energy, Seattle City Light and Salt River Project. My own presentation will provide an overview of the transformation that the industry is undergoing to make its communication about outages of all kinds more transparent, participatory, real-time and accurate.

Here are a few tips for outage communications that I plan to cover, and that I think every utility should know.

Communicate proactively. Anticipate customer expectations and needs when it comes to outage information. This generally involves providing push alerts via text, email, or automated call that provide updated information to customers about their outage. Push alerts have been shown to deflect calls during major events and improve customer satisfaction. More advanced utilities are now providing predictive push alerts – that is, even if no one calls or texts to report an outage, these utilities can accurately and confidently send outage notification alerts to the affected customers. Which channels should you start with if you don’t provide push alerts already? Automated voice alerts are the most popular among consumers but text is catching up fast. Bear in mind, however, that a company planning to launch alerts through either of these channels must manage the legal risks carefully.

Communicate accurate and consistent restoration estimates. If your company can’t provide an accurate estimated restoration time for blue sky outages, it’s probably best not to launch proactive alerts, just yet. During an outage, by far the most important piece of information to customers is the estimated restoration time. Cause is also important to customers, but it is a distant second. Most customers (61%) expect to receive a restoration estimate within the first 15 minutes of reporting an outage. And they expect it to be accurate – if the lights are restored only 10 minutes after the restoration estimate expires, customer satisfaction plummets. A utility also must ensure that the updated outage information sent out by push alerts is consistent between all channels. Customers are annoyed and confused if they receive a different restoration estimate via a text message than the one they see on the outage map. Systems must be established that pull information from the outage management system in such a way that at any given time there is “one version of the truth” that is communicated by customer care center employees as well as all automated communication systems such as the map and text messages.

Give customers control over their alerts. The big questions many utilities face before establishing proactive alerts include what channels to offer, how many alerts to provide per outage and when to provide them. Many of these problems can be resolved by establishing multiple channels then providing customers with a preference portal that gives them the ability to control how and when they receive alerts. Most preference portals allow customers to choose their preferred channel and the times of day they’d prefer not to receive alerts. Some portals allow customers to receive alerts for only the duration of a single outage. Communication must be clear, however. Many customers forget the preferences they establish and might get upset when they don’t receive an alert.

We hope to see you in Phoenix. If your utility has a good story to tell about outage communications – whether it focuses on strategy, customer research, field crew training, systems integration, channel launches or solutions to specific communications challenges – please feel free to contact me at rhenderson@chartwellinc.com. If you are interested in membership in our Outage Communications Research Council, reach out to me or to Tim Herrick, therrick@chartwellinc.com.

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