October 6, 2009

Using Text Messages for Outage Communications

The use of text messaging to communicate with customers is a new technique, at least when compared to other channels utilities tranditionally use such as email, the website, voice, and postal mail. However, the rapid growth of text message use and big success in these programs in other consumer industries such as banking and travel have thrust this channel into the spotlight for utilities to consider. There are many different ways to create the infrastructure needed to connect to customers with text messages, and you can read a bit more about that in this recent post. This article will focus on the ways that utilities can and are using this transport to offer outage communications to their customers and other interested parties. It is also important to consider the nature of the communications you wish to offer.  Will it be a one-way delivery of information to users or a 2-way approach, accepting incoming requests? Will you provide proactive information, alerting a customer to a power problem they may not even be aware of, or only demand based, matching the information flow of most current channels? Each outage communications solution must also consider several different potential types of user. The most critical in this audience is the customer, with somewhat different needs for residential vs commercial and industrial customers. In addition to customers, the solution should also consider government officials such as emergency management staff and political leaders as part of providing them with an overall understanding of circumstances, especially in major events.  Outage communications must also consider the media who provide a natural extension of any communications channel to a wider audience. Finally, utility workers should be considered. Access to outage information is critical for each utility’s employees, from field crews to account managers and executives. Outage communications solutions can also consider utility workers from other companies, such as foreign crews who may be engaged in mutual aid situations. Outage information for customers can include detailed premise or account information as well as summary details, depending on the capabilities of a given channel. When a utility is able to include summary details, such as the total customer affected in a region,  along with specific information it gives the customer an understanding of the big picture. This is one supplemental benefit of  interactive mapping sites based on iFactor’s Storm Center product. However, the delivery of information which is relevant to the outage affecting that customer is always the critical data to deliver. Text messaging is a very content limited medium,with only about 145 characters available for the payload in each message. Thus, messages must focus on the critical details for a customer, which include the following, in rough order of priority:

  • Confirmation that the utility knows about the power problem  (e.g. We are aware of your outage )
  • Information on when the problem will be resolved  (e.g. Estimated restoration time)
  • Details on the state of repair efforts (e.g. crew assigned )
  • Information on the magnitude of the problem  (e.g. 27 customers are affected)
  • Information on the cause of the problem  (e.g. Lightning)

Other parties may be interested in additional outage information beyond premise specific details. For example, an emergency management official or local mayor may be interested in summary information about a particular county, town, or set of ZIP codes. A member of the media might be interested in receiving regular updates about the entire service territory, while the utility may want to share items worthy of coverage with the media. Text messages provide a transport which can deliver tailored information to a wide variety of users. By using the power of 2-way texting, along with web self service portals, utilities can easily deliver outage information to many different types of users inside and outside the company. iFactor’s Notifi product provides a proven engine to analyze outage information and use it to create subscriptions which meet the needs of these varied users. With additional support for inbound message processing, Notifi also alows utilities to move complete transctions to the SMS channel. This is a great way to reach customers on the go and als to build an online connection with customers in everyincome group. The use of SMS texting also helps establish the utility as a leader in technology which is very important in an era when customers are demanding more control of their energy and looking for companies to provide them with trusted energy services.