Utilities combat the “Amazon Effect” with innovative digital outage communications tools

By Russ Henderson, Senior Research Manager –

Like so many other sectors of the economy, the utility industry has spent many years now battling the “Amazon Effect” – that is, the process through which disruptors such as Amazon and Uber are delivering great customer experiences, raising customer expectations and creating new norms, then continuing to deliver even better experiences.

There are perhaps no better examples of adapting to the Amazon Effect in the industry than the utilities presenting at our 13th annual Outage Communications Conference coming up June 6-7 in Chicago.

We hope you will join us in Chicago to learn how your organization can become and remain a leader in outage communications. Our agenda is designed to speak to the biggest trends in outage communications, as discussed during our recent webinar on the Five Trends in Outage Communications Your Utility Can’t Ignore.

Our conference’s keynote speaker this year will be Nichole Owens of ComEd, which in recent years has developed a well-earned reputation for innovation.

Among the company’s other accomplishments, ComEd has developed several 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.

SCE develops a “pizza tracker” to update customers on restoration

This year’s winner of Chartwell’s Gold Best Practices Award in Outage Communications is Southern California Edison. SCE’s award-winning work will be explored in a co-presentation by Tomaso Giannelli, Senior Manager, and Sandra Labib, Project Manager at SCE.

Despite wildfires, thousands of maintenance and repair outages and other unprecedented challenges, SCE implemented several projects in 2018 that delivered highly effective improvements to the outage customer experience.

SCE's Outage Progress Tracker, also referred to as "the pizza tracker." Image source: Southern California Edison

Among those achievements was the development of SCE’s Outage Progress Tracker (aka “The Pizza Tracker”) to provide a low-effort way for customers to track their outages. The tracker is a direct response to the raised expectations caused by the “Amazon Effect” – customers feel that, because they know when their Domino’s Pizza gets put into the oven and when their UPS package has shipped, they should know what is happening at every step of their outage’s restoration.

“We really wanted to tell our customers our story as to why outages take longer to repair than they actually think,” Giannelli said. “Obviously, it’s not as enjoyable for a customer to watch their outage restoration progress as it is to watch their pizza go into the oven, but we’re doing our best!”

SCE sees the pizza tracker is one of many customer-education tools.

“We do a lot of education and outreach at SCE. One thing we want is for any customer who logs into our website or uses our mobile app who experiencing an outage to really see where the outage is in the lifecycle of that outage. Are we still assessing the problem, are we working to fix it, are we making final repairs, are we waiting for equipment? Whatever it may be, we want to go step-by-step throughout that lifecycle and keep the customer informed,” Giannelli said.

Also last year, SCE used Agile project management to develop a smartphone application for field crews with the goal of improving both restoration efficiency and customer communications. The C3 (Customer Crew Connect) app 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 leveraged input from field crews throughout the development of C3 (Customer Crew Connect) every step of the way. So, rather than feeling that the new application was something being forced on them, crews were eager to use it, Labib said.

Oncor integrates customer photos into the assessment process

Another premier example of innovation in outage communications at this year’s outage conference comes from Oncor, which will take home the Silver Outage Communications Award for its Wiredown Unit On-Site Process Improvement Tool (WUPIT), a platform that allows customers to safely share digital images of damaged power lines.

Screenshot of the texting protocol for Oncor's WUPIT customer photo sharing tool. Source: Oncor

Those photos are associated in the OMS with the trouble ticket so that any operator can utilize them. This technology has enabled the utility to more effectively respond during hazardous situations and helps dispatchers make better, faster decisions.

Boyd Greene, Director of East Distribution Operations at Oncor, compares the technology to the microwave oven when it first became a common household item in the 1970s and 80s – once a utility develops and begins to use such a tool, “they will wonder how they ever got by without it.”

The tool utilizes a texting protocol developed with KUBRA that delivers to customers a series of warnings about the dangers of taking photos of downed lines, each of which the customer must respond “yes” or “got it.”

Since launching last year, Oncor has received about 18,000 customer photos regarding nearly 3,000 events through WUPIT. Of those photos, 64% clearly showed Oncor equipment while they were able to rule out 21% as showing communication cables. About 80% of the photos showing Oncor equipment resulted in the dispatch of utility resources. Not bad for a project costing in the low six figures and deployed in only a few months.

Hydro Ottawa leverages digital media to deliver satisfying storm communications

Another major trend in outage communications is that utilities, by necessity, are adopting more dynamic digital media strategies. We’re seeing utilities operate like very sophisticated media organizations via social media, video and other digital tools now available for mass communication.

Utilities no longer need the media to get their message out. They are taking on the role of communicating and controlling the narrative themselves.Many major utilities now even refer to the communications employees they send out during storms as “reporters.”

“Should a disruption be considered a threat or an opportunity? We look at it as a perfect opportunity. You have a captive audience – all eyes are on you – and you have the opportunity to showcase where you shine. Also, during an outage you can control the narrative, which under normal circumstances is not easy to do,” said Dan Séguin, Manager, Media and Customer Affairs at Hydro Ottawa.

Séguin is a premier authority on social media, as well as crisis communications, in the utility industry. He will present in Chicago on Hydro Ottawa’s Gold-award-winning and extensive crisis communications strategy, which enabled the company to vastly outperform expectations during a four-day outage in 2018.

During a major outage event last year, Hydro Ottawa was able to improve social and conventional media sentiment regarding the utility. Source: Hydro Ottawa

During a massive event that resulted in half of the utility’s customers losing power, Seguin and his team were able to secure huge gains in social media sentiment during the storm as well as mainstream media sentiment.

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. Our 13th annual Outage Communications Conference coming up June 6-7 in Chicago – which is set to be our largest and most informative, yet – is your opportunity to plug into our network.

We hope you will join us to learn how to take your organization’s outage communications to the next level. Contact me you have questions about conference content. If you have questions about attending the outage conference, contact Chartwell’s Customer Engagement Manager Ruchi Solanki.

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