eZine Home ← Prev

Outages have always been a fact of life for distribution utilities. However, customer expectations are changing as immediacy of information becomes the standard in any service transaction. Realistic and reliable outage reports, estimated time of power restoration and status updates via multiple communication channels are expected. Because the manner of outage communication can have a significant impact on customer satisfaction, utilities across the country are finding new ways to improve outage communications.

Here are some of the communication approaches U.S. utilities are taking aimed at improving satisfaction:

Salt River Project (SRP), a public power utility serving the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and J.D. Power’s top-ranked utility for Business Customer Satisfaction, keeps customers informed about outages during the monsoon season in central Arizona via text and email notifications. The utility’s goal is to send emails or texts about an outage and its cause within 30 minutes of the start of the outage. It sends alerts via its eNote alerts and reminders program to affected customers who have opted in for the service.

Entergy, an energy company based in New Orleans, finds that Twitter is the most effective social media channel for communicating with customers. For optimum customer support, the company administers a Twitter account for each of the regions it serves (e.g., @EntergyTX). It finds Twitter to be a valuable resource for monitoring issues and trends, responding to media reports and providing customers with updates before, during and after storms. By communicating with customers in everyday language—rather than “corporate speak”—Entergy is better able to build and maintain close connections with customers.

Duke Energy, the largest U.S. electric utility, was recognized as one of the “most empathetic” users of Twitter in a recent Harvard Business Review study of publicly traded companies. Since 2008, when Hurricane Ike caused a power outage affecting nearly 900,000 homes in Cincinnati, Duke has been very active in leveraging social media as a customer service tool during outages, enabling users who follow @DukeEnergyStorm to get alerts about outages on their mobile phones. The Twitter handle currently has more than 20,000 registered followers.

Oncor, an electric utility serving 10 million customers across Texas, uses a variety of communication channels for its outage alerts. Since 2012, it has used the Storm Center™ outage map to provide real-time information about outages. Customers can subscribe for alerts at the Notifi Preference Center platform, which combines customer communication preference information with data from back-end systems to automatically deliver proactive outage information to customers that match operation situations. The company recently added email and voice channels to its program of text message outage alerts.

Outage Communication Best Practices

Just as with any other service, consumers want options for the ways in which they receive outage alerts and information about affected areas, estimates about when power will be restored and helpful advice about what they can do and what they can expect. That is why many utilities are providing interfaces at their websites where customers can register for alerts and manage their alert preferences.

Customers want to receive outage information wherever they are. Younger customers, in particular, want to receive communications on their smartphones. Chartwell recently found that nearly 60% of consumers under age 50 are interested in mobile outage communication. Utilities must be able to send outage alerts over multiple channels of communication—including email, voice mail, text message and social media.

Customers appreciate real-time, up-to-the-minute information. Utilities that send frequent messages with outage information from their field crews can see a reduction in frustration and customer service calls. Customers also expect the utility’s website will offer the latest information about an outage. In fact, this information is so important, maintaining a dedicated page that customers can access for information about outages and estimated restoration time—as well as answers to frequently asked questions and contact information for customer service staff—is a good idea.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that customers want to be heard. After each power outage, valuable information can be gleaned from surveys of customers about how the utility responded to the outage. This can provide data for insights about how to improve outage communication and response times in the future.