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Consumer-centric outage communications

OUTAGE MANAGEMENT AND OUTAGE COMMUNICATION ARE essential to a good utility-customer relationship. At the AGA/EEI Customer Service Conference in April, Oncor shared its story of how it shifted from a traditional utility mindset to a re-energized, customer-focused company, particularly where it concerned outage communications.

As a regulated piece in the deregulated market puzzle that is Texas, Oncor is the largest utility in the state, and the sixth largest in the United States. Oncor has a relatively small (100-seat) call center to handle outage management, with 5 million call center transactions per year. According to Pam Wheat, director of customer contact operations for Oncor, 2 million of those transactions are interactive voice response (IVR) transactions, 1 million are e-business, and the remainder are telephone calls into the call center.

With about 90 electricity retailers active in Oncor's market, when something goes wrong, customers still turn to Oncor for answers, rather than their retailers. According to Wheat, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas has defined it in this way: "The retailer has customers, you have consumers."

Better connecting with the consumer
Nevertheless, the consumer looks to Oncor as the the "trusted advisor" and Oncor has stepped up to provide that service. "We started a customer service council, and we have 40 people across the different disciplines," Wheat said. "Our strongest support is back through the top. We have rebranded and want to be the customer's trusted advisor, focusing on transparency, predictability and consistency."

Oncor's Customer Experience Program began in 2010. It focused first on business process and technology to improve the customer relationship. The customer service council began its focus on outage communication improvement; the voice of the customer; content management, intranet and a mobility initiative; employee education; a brand and communication program; customer interaction training; and setting up a customer experience council.

The focus on the voice of the consumer was imperative. Oncor senior business analyst Jill Beavers told attendees, "We realized, in essence, we were asking the customer after the fact." So Oncor set up customer focus groups, and is revamping its customer surveys for actionable data.

Benchmarking against other industries
As well, Oncor is benchmarking customer experience in reference to other industries. (This is a theme that came up repeatedly during the course of the conference. Utility customer service is being benchmarked by the customer with regard to the service he/she is receiving from other industries such as telecommunications, entertainment, banking and airlines, and so it makes good sense for utilities to look to other industries in order to benchmark themselves.)

One area of opportunity that made immediate sense to Oncor was to improve its outage communication, Beavers said, with text notification, an IVR redesign, enhanced outage maps, social media monitoring, and a Web and mobile refresh.

Its work to date was put to the test on April 3, 2012, when the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area experienced a weather crisis, as a dozen confirmed tornadoes hit in a matter of a couple of hours, and large storm systems devastated neighborhoods. During the storm, Oncor sent out 13 proactive posts, including news updates, safety information, weather warnings and links to outage maps.

Ask your utility
The utility also formed an "Ask Oncor" group to handle any complaint escalation. Ask Oncor includes an appealing redesign with user-friendly features, robust search capabilities of content, and frequently asked questions (or FAQs). And the Ask Oncor feature is smart device friendly, as well.

Ask Oncor has just gone live, and Oncor Mobile went live at the end of January. Oncor Mobile features ease of use (customers can click on the link to dial the number), and highlights the most important information sought by customers. Oncor Text Notification is also live now, being piloted to employees and customers in select areas. This pilot provides the opportunity for those customers to text in power outages and receive updates on service requests. To date, at the time of the conference in mid-April, more than 600 outages had been reported by text. Text notification will be fully implemented later this year.

Mapping the outages and more
Beavers said Oncor's work on an enhanced outage map providing detailed outage information to customers will come to fruition later this year, as well. The map will be smart-device friendly, with enhanced mapping display and technology, and will provide a weather overlay and up-to-date outage information including estimated time of restoration, number of customers out of power, number of outage events, and the cause of the outage (if known).

Oncor's IVR redesign is due to be launched this summer, as well. IVR revamps take a long time to implement, as utility customer service managers well know, and it's important that they be completely right when launched. As such, Oncor was, in mid-April, conducting usability tests with customers.

All in all, it's a package that should excite customers, and energize them to engage.


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