Especially during a power outage, utility customers want to know everything and know it immediately. "Why haven't I seen a truck?" "When will my power be back on?" "Should I try to move this downed wire that's blocking my street?" "What's taking so long?!"
Social media, 24-hour news, two or three connected devices in every household, weather forecasters who declare Armageddon at the first flake of snow, and a general decay of patience and attention span have the folks asking when the lights are coming back on before they even go out. I mean, some people set up a "bracket" (a la March Madness) when a storm is on its way, speculating on which neighborhoods will lose power, come back on, and when. This is a high stakes game, and -- like polar bears floating on the tips of icebergs -- utilities who don't recognize the new reality are going to be cast adrift.
Want some hard evidence of the new reality? In a survey released last month, J.D. Power reported that utilities who communicate proactively with their customers have improved their customer service ratings by an average of 15 points in the last year. Proactive communication can help shape expectations, allay customer fears, and provide information to help customers prepare for and endure a multi-day outage.
It's been noted that grateful townsfolk no longer line the streets with cheers of gratitude when white-hatted linemen heroes roll into town to restore power and save the day. Frustrated people are far more likely to grouse, "What took you so long?" The grim-faced mayor who takes the heat post-storm threatens to launch an investigation for malfeasance and the Daily Gazette publishes a scathing "exposé," that's really a commentary based on some facts, but mostly perception.
"But," the baffled utility cries, "We got the lights on. We worked round the clock. We performed like we always have. That storm was the worst ever! We performed well under horrible conditions! We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars! What happened to the trust? The gratitude? The patience? What do they want from us?"
Here's what your customers want:
- - GREAT response. Better than last time. And an indicator that it will be even better next time. Even if you are doing "the best you can," you have to do better, which means you must do SOMETHING different.
- - Constant, current, accurate updates about what's going on. To borrow a phrase from our friends at FedEx, customers want to know when the lights will "absolutely, positively" be back on. In a world where they can track Grandma's fruitcake delivery every step of the way to Cousin Frank who is stationed in Japan, customers expect their utility to know what's going on in the state, town, neighborhood, and, YES- at their house! - at any given moment. A utility that cannot provide a meaningful estimated time of restoration to help customers decide their own course of action will fall behind customer expectations. It is most definitely NOT acceptable for them to be left in the dark about being in the dark.
- - Confidence that you know what you are doing and that you are doing it as quickly as possible. P.S. -- you might just have to PROVE IT to regulators or government officials during an after-action review.
If you can't give them these things in world-class fashion, it's time to upgrade your communications strategy. Using principles of Emergency Management and Incident Command System (ICS) techniques in the midst of the storm can help shape customer expectations, keep stakeholders informed about progress during an outage, and improve internal communications for the restoration team. An emergency response plan review focused on infusing ICS into preparation and response plans enables utilities to take a hard look at how we respond to outages and other emergencies. ICS emphasizes world-class internal and external communication. It leads to better planning and fewer surprises. It requires a coordinated, shared workload and enables coordinated team efforts so that no one is overburdened and responders can perform at their best. ICS also gives key stakeholders confidence that you have a proven system in place.
Perhaps best of all, ICS provides a solid framework for continuous improvement in areas where you thought you were already about as good as you're likely to get.
Is ICS a magic bullet? Sorry, no.
Like anything worthwhile, the road to success is paved with a lot of commitment, hard work, and determination. You'll need to develop, document, and train new techniques and processes, manage change, and practice the new approaches with drills and exercises. But you don't have to go it alone. If you're willing to do your part, implementing ICS principles can help and there are many success stories to prove it. Even if you're great, do SOMETHING to get better. Customers, regulators, public officials, and the media will all be more than happy to point out a few areas for improvement if utilities don't do it themselves.