Hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and other disasters consistently result in extended outages and lengthy restoration periods for utilities all over the United States. Changing weather patterns and earlier, longer storm seasons have exacerbated the problem. December 2007 saw major early winter storms throughout the Midwest, requiring extensive mutual assistance in the field. And hurricane Ike caused damage and lengthy outages from Texas to New York.
In addition to the obvious restoration challenges, these extended outages have a major impact on utility companies' abilities to maintain business operations and provide the high level of customer service that is expected in their industry. The unexpected spike in call activity associated with storms can quickly overwhelm call centers. Most utilities manage spiking outage call traffic using interactive voice response (IVR) technology. Automation has brought increased efficiency and customer satisfaction to the industry. As outages extend into days and weeks, however, utility customers will eventually need to speak with live customer service professionals (CSPs).
The 2004 hurricane season was particularly hard on Florida utilities. The state of Florida was hit with four hurricanes that year, providing a whole new perspective on utilities' needs during and after a major storm.
Call Center support became the primary "Lessons Learned" topic for the Tampa Electric Company. Previously during emergencies, Tampa Electric had staffed its call center with company team members from other departments such as regulatory affairs, accounting or legal. However, the company learned that in order to truly meet customers' needs, it is necessary to have actual CSPs answer those calls. After a major storm or during an extended outage, the skills and experience of professionals are a necessity.
Skilled utility CSPs understand customer needs and have the techniques to calm the callers. CSPs know how to express empathy with customers' initial fear, anger or worry about an outage or other service-related incident. They can assist customers by walking them through the available options. And they know how to get to the real issue -- is a wire down? Is a transformer blown? Does the customer need assistance, or should she or he leave the area in the interest of safety?
The very next year, Alberto M. Osterling of Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI) and Barbara Powers of the Tampa Electric Company began a dialogue about utility mutual assistance in the call center. They explored the idea of flying customer service representatives from one utility to another to provide call center support.
PHI and Tampa Electric joined into an agreement among the members of their Mutual Assistance Group, the Southeast Electric Exchange (SEE), to support one another by actually sending customer service professionals to damaged areas to work in the call centers of utilities in need.
However, the team recognized that transporting CSPs to storm-impacted areas would have its own set of challenges:
- It would add to the receiving utilities' logistical concerns.
- Infrastructure in the affected areas may have been destroyed by the storm.
- Hotels may be filled to capacity with local residents displaced from damaged homes.
- It would be necessary to train responding CSPs on the local systems.
- Responding CSPs would need secure access to back end systems.
The SEE's Mutual Assistance team continued to discuss avenues to address these issues. They explored the concept of virtual call center mutual assistance. Could this be accomplished using telephony and the Internet? Was there a common thread among utilities that could facilitate this? Could this type of program be developed alongside existing IVR systems for outage reporting?
Realizing that they shared a common IVR provider to handle outage calls with automation, the utilities in the SEE approached their vendor with an idea. It recognized the customers' need to speak with live personnel after their initial reports were taken by the IVR, and agreed to work with Tampa Electric and a consortium of utilities to devise a strategy for call center mutual assistance. They formed a "task force" composed of developers and utility communications experts from the vendor and the SEE utilities' associates, to develop the framework for a solution. The utilities identified a thorough set of requirements, customer needs and potential challenges. Some obvious obstacles were the different methods between utilities for reporting outages, exchanging information and transferring calls across different carriers. Infrastructure would be necessary to connect utilities' communications to one another.
The solution needed to provide support on very short notice, minimize or eliminate logistical challenges, include a common outage response process, utilize trained utility CSPs and leverage existing technologies. The collaboration resulted in the development of a Mutual Assistance Routing System (MARS), which enables utilities to automatically redirect high volumes of outage calls to other utilities during crises and times of peak activity. When needed, "requesting utilities" call upon "responding utilities" to answer a designated number of the requesting utilities' incoming customer calls. Because the utilities' IVR provider is capable of moving calls across disparate telecom carriers, re-routing calls between utilities is no longer an obstacle.
Responding utility customer service professionals gather information from customers via a simple Web-based form, a standardized input screen that all utilities can use. Through the system, the supporting CSP is able to provide restoration information directly to the customer. Then it seamlessly feeds data directly into the requesting utility's internal systems, generating outage tickets. MARS greatly enhances the ability of utilities to help each other by directly helping each other's customers. And with qualified customer service professionals across the country making efficient use of leveraged technologies, utilities are able to assist each other more effectively.