This article first appeared in Utility Dive.
The utilities industry is facing a trifecta of challenges: a global rise in storm intensity, a dramatic increase in customer expectations and a significant surge in technology advancements.
This year’s hurricane season has been brutal, with Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate causing widespread, catastrophic devastation and leaving millions without power – many of whom still remain in the dark. These hurricanes are a reminder that extreme weather events of all kinds are on the rise globally and show no signs of waning. In addition, customer expectations are increasing exponentially due to hyper-competitive industries, new and innovative technologies and the on-demand economy concept from other sectors.
With the sector at an inflection point, it is more important than ever for a utility – via a Digital Utility Transformation – to provide a meaningful and seamless communication experience with the modern day customer during a power outage.
PA partnered with Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Washington's largest energy utility, supporting 1.1 million electric customers and 790,000 natural gas customers – as part of its Get to Zero (GTZ) effort, an initiative to expand self-service options, remove obstacles for customers and quickly solve problems when they occur.
Through a customer-led, data-driven, three-pronged proactive outage communications approach, PSE transformed the customer experience around outage notifications in a plethora of dynamic and innovative ways.
1. Empower the customer through a high-value, intuitive and interactive multi-channel communication during outages
PSE uses a variety of channels and touchpoints such as email, text and traditional phone calls to communicate with customers. To find out the customer’s preferred channel, PSE signed up customers through their accounts, on the outage map or when reporting an outage. Once the channel(s) was identified, the utility kept the customer engaged during the journey by providing frequent updates on the outage.
PSE uses the following techniques:
2. Improve outage related operations from start to finish and engage customers in the process
Through an agile approach on the technology side, the use of meter data enabled faster and better decision making during outages and helped streamline operations. On the process side, PSE made operational changes to more accurately assess ETRs (estimated time of restoration), providing both customers and the customer care group better information.
PSE saw a myriad of improvements from using this approach:
3. Increase the reach to customers and keep their contact information current and up to date
While streamlined operations and a strong technology platform are essential for effective outage communications, the most notable driver of success can often be the availability of customer contact information and how it is used.
PSE added a new contact information page prompting customers to update their accounts, the utility conducted marketing campaigns to inform customers of outage communication channels and self-service options, and it trained customer service representatives to seek updated contact information when fielding customer calls.
As a result of these initiatives, PSE was able to increase customer reach, with PSE expanding from 90,000 mobile phone numbers to more than 450,000 in six months.
Outages can generate compliments instead of complaints
PSE was recently faced with a wind event that led to power outages and the utility received praise from customers via email, phone, and social media. One customer said, “The last two times my power went out, I received an email almost instantly telling me that PSE was aware of the problem, they were working on it, and they even provided an ETR. PSE sent another email just as soon as the power came back on, letting me know that as well.” Another customer remarked, “I know that PSE is taking great strides in preventing their customers from being without power and I am grateful. Thank you, PSE!”
In fact, in a recent customer survey of customers conducted by PSE, there was a 32% increase in satisfaction scores when customers recalled receiving notifications.
Customers now have more control than ever over how and when they interact with the PSE. Through proactive outage notifications, PSE has actively increased self-service options for its customers. To date in 2017, PSE has had more than 100,000 clicks from emails/texts to visit the outage map, report an outage or download the app. As a result of these efforts, customer calls are declining, with a reduction of thousands of calls over the last year.
At the same time, PSE significantly reduced the time for customers to perform outage related actions, making it faster and quicker for customers using self-service. For example, with a two-click outage report link in emails, outage reporting now takes under 30 seconds. Also, due to PSE’s interactive text outage reporting, customers can report an outage and receive an ETR in less than 15 seconds.
As a sector undergoing tremendous transformation, the PSE outage communications effort shows that utilities can continue to provide reliable, affordable, and clean electricity, while also introducing new and innovative service offerings to customers.
Jamison Roof, Ajay Jawahar, and Lili Gao are energy and utility experts at PA Consulting Group