Sizing Up Emergencies and Outages

Whether you work at a small municipal utility or you are part of a multi-state investor-owned utility company, there are always circumstances that can wreak havoc on any sized organization. What sets you apart is how quickly and attentively you handle them.

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Large and Small Utilities Plan Differently

By Wally Sherer

Whether you work at a small municipal utility providing water, electric and sewer services or you are part of a multi-state investor-owned utility company, there are always circumstances that can wreak havoc on any sized organization. What sets you apart is how quickly and attentively you handle them.

“Utilities should move aggressively from a defensive responsive capability to a more offensive, prepared stance regarding events that can have prolonged impact on their ability to generate, transmit, distribute and provide critical customer and internal business services,” said Ron Brown of consulting firm PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) governance, risk and compliance practice.

Emergency conditions change the game and can affect thousands of people. This might involve restoring service after an ice storm or winter blizzard, a vehicle knocking down a telephone pole/transformer, a construction backhoe digging up an underground cable, or a tree limb dropping a live wire in someone’s backyard. Unfortunately, these events don’t always happen when the customer service contact center is fully staffed.

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When an emergency presents itself, utilities should expect that customers want to speak with a live person and be reassured the utility is taking immediate steps to correct the situation. Photo courtesy FreeImages.com/Jeff Jones.

When an emergency presents itself, utilities should expect that customers want to speak with a live person. They want to understand the status, share essential and hyper-local information, and be reassured the utility is taking immediate steps to correct the situation. A thorough needs and wants analysis of your contact center operations will uncover specific and unique regulatory requirements and is time well spent on formulating a strategic action plan.

One of the best ways to plan for the next emergency, regardless of the size of your organization, is to assess how your contact center handled the last one. Analyzing business impact, customer communications and feedback, time to recovery, etc., immediately following an event will provide more information to your teams than any simulated practice.

Call Center Outsourcing Benefits

Some utilities have found they can outsource their after-hours calls to a third-party contact center and deliver seamless service to their customers 24/7. They are not only reducing their operating costs and ridding themselves of a complex management function and staffing nightmare but also improving overall customer satisfaction scores.

Large utilities can enjoy a small team of dedicated agents that their outsource partner can quickly expand based on the number of customers affected and the event’s anticipated duration. Making sure the outsource partner’s contact center is located outside your service territory is a critical factor. This is best illustrated by the following examples.

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Some utilities have found they can outsource their after-hours calls to a third-party contact center and deliver seamless service to their customers 24/7. Photo courtesy FreeImages.com

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, with 80 mph winds. Streets were flooded, trees and power lines knocked down and the city’s famed boardwalk was ripped apart. Gas stations were closed because of the power outage and the conditions in the state had a major utility’s contact center agents stuck at home and the local contact centers empty. A senior executive of this utility made a call to its outsource partner on a Friday evening requesting 100 agents on the phones to answer customers’ calls by noon on Saturday. The outsourcer had 75 agents by 9 a.m. and more than 100 before noon. The situation lasted for days with the partner staffing agents 24 hours a day.

On February 13, 2014, a blizzard hit the Washington, D.C., area and dumped 29.6 inches of snow at Dulles International Airport. The nation’s capital was virtually paralyzed for days. Snowdrifts blocked the streets, bus service was limited, metros were operating only on below-ground tracks, and all federal offices and public schools were closed. The mayor urged all citizens to stay home to allow crews to clear the streets of the city and surrounding area. The major utility that services the D.C. area quickly realized that none of its staff could get out of their homes to get to the contact center — it would be days before the situation was going to change. The utility activated the major storm event program it had with its third-party outsource partner located outside the Mid-Atlantic region. Within hours more than 50 agents were on the phones providing up-to-date information on the service restoration timeline.

On September 20, 2015, after a home game for the local NFL football team, a fan ran into a pole and knocked out a transformer taking more than 50,000 customers out of service. The utility made an immediate call to its outsource partner and the small staff on hand at the contact center was increased by 25 agents through the outsourcer’s work-at-home agents. They assisted the utility into the evening until service was restored and played a major role in easing a tense situation with the utility’s customers.

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One of the best ways to plan for the next emergency, regardless of the size of your organization, is to assess how your contact center handled the last one. Photo courtesy FreeImages.com/Kenn Kiser

Small Utilities Must Plan, Too

Small cooperatives or municipalities find that a pool of agents and sharing a supervisor works just fine for them to meet their limited after-hour needs. With a much smaller customer base, they typically do not have 30,000 or more customers with interrupted service at any one time and can utilize their contact center staff and other employees to handle the phones during an outage event. Some do invest in an insurance policy-type arrangement, however. This could involve paying a monthly fee to have a guarantee that a certain number of agents will be on the phones within a specified number of hours.

Because of the cost associated with staffing at least one individual and often a management employee to work nights and weekends, the savings realized by the smaller utility can have an even greater impact on the costs associated with after-hours coverage.

All utilities monitor weather forecasts via Doppler radar and are proactive in keeping internal linemen, contractors and tree crews on hand to respond to situations outside the contact center. They will bring in extra staff and agents to the center based on the forecasted severity of the event. Management will also direct preemptive outreach to customers warning them of potential outages ahead of time.

Large and small utilities plan differently to manage and stay ahead of emergencies, but it’s all planning nonetheless. Business continuity and customer satisfaction are counting on it. UP

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from PowerGrid International magazine.

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The Author: Wally Sherer is senior vice president of sales for Convergent Outsourcing Inc., a customer engagement outsourcing company that delivers people, processes and technology to improve efficiency, ensure compliance and increase customer satisfaction and lifetime value for its clients. Reach him at wsherer@ConvergentUSA.com.

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