What Happens When the Lights Go Out?

A few weeks ago nearly 70,000 customers were without power in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas after storms swept through the area. While this wasn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last time in that area, what was different was that Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell realized an issue. Campbell wanted those affected customers to be aware of the situation and to receive continuing information about the outages and estimated resolution.

Campbell isn't alone in wanting proactive communication. Customer satisfaction is directly attributed to proactive utility communication. According to the 2014 Electric Utility residential Customer Satisfaction Study conducted by J.D. Power, customer satisfaction improved year over year "driven primarily by improvements in corporate citizenship and outage communications (emphasis mine)."

“Communications satisfaction has steadily increased during the past six years, climbing to 592 in 2014 from 554 in 2009. Communication awareness has improved to 51 percent this year from 48 percent in 2013. Overall satisfaction increases to 701 when utilities proactively communicate outage information regularly and clearly via the channels customers prefer, including utility-initiated phone calls, emails, text messages, and social media sites, compared with 624 when communication is not proactive.”

Proactive Communication Is The Key

A significant jump in customer satisfaction occurs when the communication is proactive across preferred communication channels. With communication technology available to utility companies that can be initiated by a single person, there is no excuse for not communicating with your customers. While Campbell wants all future utility companies regulated by the Public Service Commission, not all states have a champion of the idea. It’s up to the utility companies themselves to determine how proactive communication affects their customer satisfaction. They must take it upon themselves to implement a communication strategy.

For companies, proactive communication can lead to significant cost savings too. If you're lucky to have a large call center, then your agents will be tied up answering questions about the outage, instead of handling billing issues or other needs. If you aren't as lucky and have a small staff to answer the phones, even a small municipality could overwhelm the entire office leading to a halt in productivity and the potential of calls being unanswered or on hold.

Too Many Channels?

The report specifically states the communication should be clearly presented "via the channels customers prefer." There are a lot of options when it comes to what medium to use when communicating. The reality is that choosing just one mode isn't going to cast a wide enough net to get the word out. A good way to figure out how to prioritize communication is to look at how your customers are communicating with you. If you have a(n) active social media account(s), make sure you’re sending out outage alerts on those accounts.

In your bills and online, do you offer a place for your customers to subscribe to outage alerts? If not, why not? This is a great way for you to compile a list of customers that want to know when an issue is ongoing and ultimately resolved. Simply offering a form for your users to sign up for automated phone calls, text messages, emails, or social media messages will also help you to know where to prioritize your communication. While not the only method, your customers can certainly help to better direct how you communicate.

Don't Leave Them Hanging

Unfortunately, in the eyes of customers, proactive communication seems to have meshed with instantaneous. While that might have evolved unfairly, technology has definitely moved the bar closer to instantaneous. The technology available, however, allows for quick communication, but it can't always be done automatically.

For example, if it takes a truck fifteen minutes to get on location to diagnosis, then you should immediately let customers know crews are on the way. The message doesn't have to be that the issue has been fixed and the first call doesn't even have to be when it will be fixed either. Customers simply want to know that you are aware about the outage and that you are trying to do something about it. Obviously, continued updates through resolution are also recommended, especially in overly long outages.

Have you had success notifying your customers about outages? Let us know in the comments and share your strategies and how your customers responded to the proactive messaging.

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