September 25, 2015

What Really Upsets Customers During Power Outages?

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As consumers and businesses become more reliant on electricity, utilities are faced with greater pressure to improve not only their restoration efforts, but also how they communicate about the restoration process. When severe storms seem to frequently lead to multi-day outages and customers have instant access to information sharing through social media, an individual customer’s perception can play a key role in how utilities are perceived by customers and regulatory agencies. In this blog post, we’ll review how customers are sharing their frustrations through social media and dive into the real reason customers are upset, so you can respond accordingly.

Why are customers upset?

By observing customer posts on utility social media pages (admittedly a small sampling of the overall population), we can see that the outrage is often less about the utility’s failure to prepare for outages or the time until restoration, and more about the lack of communication. Yes, customers are upset that they don’t have power, and they want their power back right away, but what seems to push them into leaving angry posts on social media is a lack of communication. “Why is the power out?” they ask. “When is it coming back? Why don’t I see any trucks in my neighborhood? Why did my power go out hours after the storm passed? Why won’t anyone give me a straight answer about what’s going on?” Other things that cause customers to leave angry comments:

  • Seeing trucks in their neighborhood that leave before repairs are complete
  • Seeing utility employees sitting or standing around (i.e., perceived to not be working)
  • Seeing neighbors or businesses that have power while they’re still out
  • Talking to mutual assistance crews who tell the customer that they don’t have instructions on what to do next
  • Not knowing about options for shelter or other assistance or feeling that the options are insufficient (especially when they have small children, elderly relatives, or people with disabilities in their household)

In the absence of information, customers tend to conclude that their utility doesn’t care or, worse, that their utility both doesn’t care and is irresponsible with funds (for example, not using them to maintain the grid). Some customers have a perception that their utility is an uncaring corporation, primarily interested in profit rather than customer service. You can see an example of this attitude in this quote from a New Yorker article: “Utilities […] gain their customers automatically, based on where a resident lives, and typically take little interest in them.” A lack of communication during an extended outage adds validity to this perception in the customers’ minds. Furthermore, unhappy customers are more likely to air their grievances on social media sites, and their comments add additional perceived validity to other customers’ image of the utility as self-serving and greedy. When the most visible comments about your utility are stories about customer service failures, it’s easy for consumers to believe that failures are more common than successes.

What’s going on here?

The common thread in situations that cause customers to leave angry comments is a perception of disorganization – customers see what is not being done instead of what is being done. Some of these situations are related to misunderstanding the utility’s repair process. For example, if your process includes sending a troubleman as the first responder to inspect outage locations, a customer who doesn’t understand this process may assume that the troubleman is there to make repairs and become frustrated if they see the truck leave their neighborhood without completing repairs. One particularly difficult concept to explain is “nested outages,” when a single location is affected by more than one problem with the electrical grid. A customer who lives in an area affected by multiple problems might never see a utility crew, and it might take longer to get their power back on, as restoring one of the problems may not be enough to restore their power. Without an understanding of the situation, the customer could very easily become frustrated about both the length of the power outage and the lack of a visible response to the situation from their utility.

How should you respond?

Your response to this frustration (and others like it) should involve communication before, during, and after you act to restore power. In general, more personal communication has a greater impact on customers’ opinions. For example, sending proactive alerts on a communication channel picked by the customer is more convenient than requiring a customer to call a customer service number and possibly wait on hold to speak to a representative, or waiting for a customer to come to your website to get information. Text messages or emails can also be personalized with name and address information and can use information about the customer’s location to determine when to send a storm warning or an outage alert. Not all communication needs to be one on one – you can also use press releases or press conferences to provide general restoration plans and direct customers to resources such as outage maps, notification services, and suggestions for coping with extended outages. It’s also a best practice to collect common questions from your customers and provide the answers on your website or in future press releases to customize the information for your customer base. Social media can also expose communication with individual customers to a wider audience, and gives you options for including photos and video as visual examples of the message you’re sharing. The following Facebook post demonstrates how photos can be used as a teaching opportunity available to all of your customers.
Facebook post with photo of broken tree branches and utility pole - caption: "After recent tornadoes and storms, some with sick or disabled family members pleaded for quick power restoration. We had 90% back in 24 hrs, but the worst areas took a bit longer. Some thought if we could just come to their street we could help, but when this type of damage happens in block after block, we often must work our way to you. Please develop a backup plan now if your loved ones are reliant on uninterrupted electricity. Our crews are praised here and around the country for their speedy storm work, but when violent weather strikes, it's always good to have a plan."
The great thing about this example is that information is communicated with care and sympathy for the customers who are out of power. The utility pairs a plea for customers who need uninterrupted power to develop backup plans with a photo that powerfully illustrates why backup plans are necessary. The comments on the post include another example of teaching with compassion. In response to a customer complaint about outage frequency, the utility representative offers assistance, then combines an understated explanation for recent outages with an expression of sympathy for a difficult situation and an offer to help.
Facebook post comments between customer and utility - Customer: "We never had this many power outages when we had Cobb EMC....This is just ridiculous." Utility: "Where are you located (generally)? If the outages persist after these storms subside, we can have someone investigate the circuit you are on. -J" Customer: "Canton" Utility: "Between the tornado there last week and new storms continuing to shake out broken branches and weakened trees, you HAVE been hit hard there. Hoping things get better soon. Let us know if not. -J" Customer: "Ok thanks."
The key here is that the utility representative listens to the customer’s complaint and responds with a promise of action. As you focus on communication, make sure you also have systems in place to follow through. Communication is useless if it doesn’t relate to reality  – even if you could ensure that all of your customers perfectly understand your restoration plans, you won’t eliminate customer frustration if you don’t follow those plans. Action can include more than restoring power. For example, if you have the resources to provide ice, cell phone charging stations, or other assistance, you can create opportunities to connect with customers and demonstrate that you care about them. Tools such as KUBRA’s Storm Center map allow you to add icons to an outage map that show customers where you are providing resources during an extended outage. Outreach Van icon on Storm Center power outage map

Creating a complete response

KUBRA can help with the communication, but even the most robust communication system operates along with other processes, including estimating restoration times and crew logistics. Coordinating the restoration effort after a large storm is incredibly complex and stressful, especially because customers have little to no tolerance for mistakes when their power is out and they’re sitting in the dark. However, if you have good systems and processes in place for both communication and response, you can help reduce stress and frustration for both employees and customers.