March 5, 2015

Why Your Outage Story is Important

Back in 2012, J.D. Power reported a direct correlation between customer satisfaction and the amount of information customers received during outages. Since then, interactive outage maps, text alerts, and mobile-optimized websites have become common tools for providing customers with outage information. However, it’s still not common for utilities to provide information beyond the number of customers affected by an outage or an estimated restoration time, which means many utilities are missing out an opportunity to improve customer satisfaction and gain customer trust by being more transparent.

When customers are able to get more information about the reason for an outage and the status of the repair work, they are better able to feel in control of their situation and less likely to become frustrated with their utility. Providing additional information contributes to transparent communication, which builds customers’ trust and strengthens your relationship with them. Collecting and sharing additional information with your customers during outages also helps you focus on and improve your restoration plans as a whole.

Current State of Affairs According to a 2014 Chartwell study of 52 of the largest utilities in North America, 84% of utilities offer an interactive outage map, but only 37% of utilities with an outage map include an outage cause, and only 36% include crew status. Even when utilities are capable of providing outage cause information, many causes don’t get entered until after restoration is complete, which means that they are never seen by customers.

Infographic - Outage Maps: One of the key elements of the outage portal is an interactive outage map. Maps are by far the most prevalent feature of an outage web portal. 84% of utilities offer an interactive outage map. Outage Map Functionality: 81% Customers affected by outage, 54% Estimated Restoration Time, 37% Outage Cause, 36% Crew Status, 29% Outage Start Time, 11% Percentage of Total Customers Affected
Infographic Credit: Chartwell, Inc., 2014

Telling Your Outage Story

To understand why providing information about outage cause and crew status is important, consider how you function as a consumer. You have expectations about service, how you are treated, and how much control you have over your relationship with companies you interact with. When those expectations aren’t met, who are you angry with? Usually, it’s the representative or the company – unless they have a good reason for the shortcoming or can offer a genuine apology with an effort to make things right.

Providing additional outage information to your customers is valuable because it lets you tell the rest of the story behind the outage. This is the utility version of an explanation for a drop in the quality of service. Utility industry regulators are also encouraging utilities to “tell their story,” and even fining utilities that don’t do so. For example, on the New York utility scorecard established after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Communication counts for 49% and ETR accuracy counts for an additional 12% of overall scoring.

Let’s take package deliveries as an example. When you order a package, you’re typically given a number to track the package’s delivery status. If your package doesn’t arrive when you expect it to, it’s easy to go online and find out why. Whether its a storm delay or an issue with your delivery address, knowing this information helps you see the big picture and improves your perception of the shipping company.

In addition to providing information about delays, many delivery companies also provide the location of each package at many points along its route and an estimated delivery date. This information is akin to a utility providing an outage notification that includes crew status and an estimated restoration time. To provide the same kind of information as other service providers, you need to tell your customers what happened to cause an outage, what you’re doing to fix the issue, and when they can expect the power to be up and running again.

Twitter Conversation between Customer (C) and Utility (U) - C: why does it trip with a light mist and no wind or lightning? U: moisture could have caused a fault current to occur. We found no problems on the system, so the service was interrupted due to rain. C: why is the power gone off three times this morning? That's 5 times in 24 hours. U: Feeder outage in Rockwall this morning....cause being investigated...75% customers back on, ~Debbie C: Debbie, what is being done to address this and fix it permanently? Repairs?
Customers especially wonder about outages when there isn’t an obvious cause in their area. Not getting an answer to questions about the reason for repeated outages is frustrating.


Twitter comment from utility customer: Thrilled the power came back on, but wondering why it went out
Even after power is restored, some customers still want to know the cause of the outage.

Examples of Improvement

Some utilities are working to provide more accurate and timely information about crew status and outage causes by using a combination of hardware like smartphones, tablets and GPS devices and software like outage management systems, mobile applications and automated text messaging systems.

For example, one large utility company in the Northeastern United States recently implemented a program to allow mutual assistance crews to submit work order status updates by text message. Using an automated message system, crew members can easily update the the status of a work order, something that was previously done by telephone. The text program improves outage communications by shortening the time between a change in status and communicating the change to the affected customers.

Similarly, another Northeastern utility provides an unprecedented amount of data on its outage map. Using the outage map, customers can view outage data at the premise level. When customers zoom in closer than the 250-foot level, they can view icons for each premise affected by an outage. For locations where multiple addresses are too close together for the map to display separate icons, customers have the option to open a pop-up window that displays additional details, including which addresses are affected and which have reported outages.

Improving Communication is a Process

Overall, the quality of your communication is key. Customers react most positively when they can get information specific to their situation. This information gives them back a measure of control over their lives at a time when it’s easy for them to feel powerless and disconnected (pun intended). However, even if you can’t provide specific updates for each customer, telling your outage story on a higher level is still an important part of the process of improving your communication.