Today’s consumers can fill their vehicles’ gas tanks, shop for groceries and pick up prescription medications just as easily at four o’clock in the afternoon as at four o’clock in the morning. Online, search engines have conditioned users to expect immediate results; any time of the day or night, any question answered just by “Googling” it.
Electricity customers’ expectations for power outage communications are no different. A parent getting a child ready for school at 7:30 a.m. on a weekday, the manager of a local manufacturing facility with employees standing idle at 11:00 p.m., and every sports fan watching a game on television, each of them expects to be able to contact the Local Distribution Company (LDC) to let it know the power is out, ask when it can be expected to come back on, and learn how they can be updated. To meet these expectations, many LDCs, including Alectra Utilities, have come to depend on technology to do the heavy lifting of providing outage information. Online outage maps, telephone systems with interactive voice recognition, auto-tweets, and email and text push notifications have successfully enabled LDCs to communicate power outage restoration information around-the-clock with minimal, typically system control room, staff resources.
But for the consumer sitting in the dark, something was missing. Surveys and focus groups have overwhelmingly indicated that having the option to speak with a real person in real time is a common expectation of customers and stakeholders, despite LDCs’ best efforts to provide them with reporting capabilities and/or power restoration information through technology-based solutions.
For one of Alectra Utilities’ legacy LDCs, PowerStream, the challenge was to establish a call centre that operated 24 hours a day. After business hours, on weekends, and on statutory holidays the system control room was minimally-staffed, so when the power went out, those system controllers needed to be clearly focused on restoring power and not be distracted by incoming telephone calls. The technology was available, people were not.
A 24/7, outsourced and outage-focused, communications solution – scalable to any utility event and cost-effective – staffed with knowledgeable, utility-trained agents, each able to triage customer calls, provide well-informed responses, and with access to the LDC’s systems: Advanced Metering Infrastructure to ping meters and check voltage; Customer Information System to determine if an account was disconnected for safety or non-payment reasons; and if an outage exists, enter the details into the Outage Management System to inform system control room staff.
In 2014, Util-Assist, already providing call centre services to several LDCs for Conservation and Demand Management programs, agreed to pilot a proof of concept for PowerStream where callers reporting a power outage or other power-related issue and who chose to speak with a live agent were routed to the Util-Assist call centre. Here customers were seamlessly transferred to PowerAssist agents who had been trained on the utility’s procedures, as well as given access to its customer information and technical systems. To provide the scalability required to transition quickly from minor to major events, additional PowerAssist agents are pulled from other Util-Assist call centre programs when needed.
“On blue sky days, when one or two utilities are experiencing outages, others are not. This enables PowerAssist to optimize its agents’ time,” explains John McClean, Vice President of Centralized Operations Services at Alectra Utilities. “The model works on storm days too because weather travels. As a storm ends in Southern Ontario it moves into Central Ontario. Calls drop off in Southern Ontario and pick up in Central Ontario, so the customer call load is shifted.”
With the concept proved, additional customer-focused services for key accounts and social media were introduced. Key account customers are provided with a direct phone line to PowerAssist agents, who can deliver updated outage information any time of the day or night, and provide follow-up. To further enhance outage communications, a senior agent can post outage information and reply to mentions on the company’s social media properties.
Since its inception, several other utilities have signed on to receive the service, including the remaining Alectra Utilities legacy LDCs. By the end of March 2017, PowerAssist was covering the entire Alectra Utilities service territory.
To ensure that high levels of performance are being achieved and maintained, Alectra Utilities monitors its technology-based power outage communications systems, PowerAssist services, and incoming call traffic on a monthly basis. Continually confirming the quality of the information stream from the Outage Management System to the Interactive Voice Recognition telephone system ensures the majority of callers are satisfied with the automated solution and only a small percentage opt to be transferred to a live agent.
Electricity is said to travel at the speed of light, and today, so do customers’ expectations for information when their power, all of a sudden, goes out. Alectra Utilities is doing business better and increasing customer satisfaction with PowerAssist. At the same time a system controller is responding to a “breaker open” condition, around-the-clock PowerAssist agents are interacting with callers reporting their power being out and posting a reply to the tweet from a dark living room, “What is the ETR? The game is about to start!”
PowerAssist currently provides around-the-clock power outage call centre communications services to nine Ontario LDCs with a combined total of 1.2 million customers and continues to diversify by adding more utilities to their client base. To learn more about the PowerAssist solution go to www.Util-Assist.com, contact Util-Assist by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 905.952.0477.