Keeping the Lights Burning

Posted on October 14, 2010
Posted By: Scott Zimmerman
Want to hear a statistic that will make your lights flicker? Electric power outages and blackouts cost America around $80 billion annually. Of this, $57 billion (73 percent) is from losses in the commercial sector, $20 billion (25 percent) in the industrial sector, and $1.5 billion (2 percent) from residential losses.*

With the dog days of summer settling in across the United States, utility companies and residents alike are bracing for heat-induced power outages and a very active storm season.

But thanks to Engagement Communications technology, those same utility companies are better prepared to communicate with their customers during an interruption of service or other emergencies.

The technology is one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to communicate to large audiences, but in a very personalized manner. Through a simple question on the service application or billing statement, utility customers have the option to receive automated messages through voice mail, e-mail and/or text messaging.

The messages inform customers when power will be restored, or during an emergency, give instructions for appropriate response actions and "real-time" solutions. These messages can be pre-recorded with general topics or utility companies can record their own message that is uploaded and distributed through their technology provider.

Previously, utility companies relied primarily on their call center employees to provide information to customers during an outage or emergency. But if that outage or emergency happened after hours or on weekends, no proactive communication could be provided at all. The benefit of the automated message is that it can be tailored to a specific geographic area or customer group. It can be deployed at any time, and in a format that the customer prefers.

Putting it to the test

The 2004 hurricane season was particularly rough on Florida, and hurricane-related outages provided the first opportunity for the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) to put broadcast voice messaging to the test. OUC used automated messaging to keep contact with customers during power restoration efforts and to provide information about water resources after the storm.

As crews worked to restore power throughout the Orlando area, calls were placed to make sure customers regained electricity. By quickly searching for problems in a newly restored area, OUC avoided a large number of truck rolls (at the average cost of $150 per roll), which saved the utility a significant amount of time and money.

The ability to quickly distribute messages also aided OUC in addressing health concerns. After Hurricane Charley, erroneous information spread that residents should boil their water to ensure it was safe to drink. OUC quickly had a message recorded and delivered stating that this was a false alarm and customers had no reason to worry about the safety of their drinking water.

The end result: a better informed audience with fewer inbound calls to the customer call center. And since utility companies average literally a million calls for power outages each year, the reduction in calls is a welcome relief.

The cost benefit of this automation for utility companies is also significant. When utilizing call center employees to make the customer contact, the cost is about $1.50 per call, compared to $0.12 per automated message. The other benefit over using call centers is that the automated messages provide a consistent message in a strong, friendly voice. The messages can be delivered in multiple languages, simultaneously, to meet the diverse needs of the customer.

On a broader scope, the automated notification system has changed the way utility companies communicate with their customers overall. The technology has provided a platform to leverage Engagement Communications to better engage with, and support, its customers. Simply put, if you want a customer to take action to an unpredictable situation in a predictable way -- then engage and communicate with them in a highly personalized and tailored way.

While the automated messages can be used during outages and other emergencies, they also can deliver billing/payment reminders, announce a new service or simply educate consumers on how to conserve energy.

For example, through the two-way dialogue of Engagement Communications, a utility company has learned that a particular customer leaves his home each morning for work at 7:30 a.m. Imagine the positive connection the company would make with that customer if they sent him a friendly text message reminder at 7 a.m. to close the blinds, turn off the washer and dryer, and turn down the thermostat. The reminder not only creates a connection, but engages the customer to take action.

E.ON US, the parent company of two regulated utility companies -- Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities -- also took advantage of Engagement Communications to enroll customers in budget billing and auto debit programs. During the campaign, more than 315,000 automated messages were delivered to E.ON's residential customers, so they could keep their lights burning. The customized script for the messages was recorded by a utility employee to maintain the utility's personal touch with each call.

The calls were scheduled for early afternoon, which resulted in an even distribution of the number of calls answered by an actual customer and those left on an answering machine. During the course of the campaign, E.ON US made adjustments to the script to improve enrollments, such that the average cost per direct enrollment was reduced to approximately $19 relative to total calls (including messages left on answering machines), and as low as $6 per enrollment for live calls. An additional 4,000 enrollments were therefore achieved at lower costs by reducing the cost per contact while maintaining the existing rates of direct enrollment.

Consider another example.Georgia Power takes great effort to keep the lights burning for its customers. In 2009, Georgia Power sent some 1.3 million proactive calls to customers to help them avoid disconnection. This was a significantly higher volume than previous years; however because they used massively scalable engagement communication services, they were able to scale without significantly greater overhead and expense. An even more rewarding data point is that the 1.3 million calls resulted in a swing of 59% customers bringing their payments up to date and avoiding disconnection. This example illustrates a great human story, but also provides a significant business advantage for the utility through less field calls to make disconnections, happier customers and greater revenue predictability.

This level of Engagement Communications is meaningful and effective, and creates a deeper connection with customers. As we cycle out of the recession and consumers regain stable footing, they will remember the brands and businesses that treated them well and respectfully through a tough time. Whether it's restoring power during an outage, preventing a disconnection from delinquent payments or setting up budget billings, utility companies can continue to engage their customers with relevant, personalized communications. It's simply their way of keeping the lights burning. How are you engaging your customers?

*Study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers Kristina Hamachi-LaCommare and Joe Eto for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution.

Authored By:
Appointed as TeleVox's President in November 2008, Scott Zimmerman leads all aspects of TeleVox operations to include client operations, sales, information services, product development and marketing. From January 2006 through joining West Corporation, Scott was General Manager of a division of GE Healthcare's Clinical Systems business. In total, Scott spent more than nine years at GE Healthcare in a variety of cross-functional and global leadership roles as well as seventeen

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