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How Large and Small Utility Contact Centers Can “Weather” an Emergency

Lightning storm against purple and black sky

Whether you work at a small municipal utility providing water, electric and sewer services or are part of a multi-state investor-owned utility, weather events and the resulting outages don’t always happen 9 to 5. This situation most often creates a challenge for your organization.

When something occurs that creates an emergency situation for electric service providers customers, they want to be able to speak with a “real” person. They want to be able to provide essential pieces of information and be reassured the utility is taking immediate action.

This might involve restoring service after an ice storm, a vehicle running into a telephone pole knocking down a transformer, a tree limb falling on a line with a live wire in a customer’s back yard or a construction tractor back-hoe digging up an underground cable. Unfortunately these events do not always happen when your customer service contact center is fully staffed during normal operating hours Monday thru Friday.

Staffing a small team of agents and having a supervisor available to answer these frantic calls in your service territory can be quite challenging and expensive. Some utilities have found they can outsource their after-hours calls to a third-party contact center and deliver seamless service to their customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are not only reducing their operating costs, ridding themselves of a complex management function and staffing nightmare, but at the same time improving overall customer satisfaction scores.

Large utilities need backup

Large utilities can enjoy a small team of dedicated agents that their outsource partner can quickly expand based on the number of their customers effected and the anticipated duration of the event. Making sure the outsource partner’s contact center is located outside its service territory is a critical factor. This is best illustrated by these examples:

October 29, 2012 – Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, NJ with 80 MPH winds. Streets were flooded, trees and power lines knocked down, and the city’s famed boardwalk was ripped apart. Gas stations were closed because of the power outage and the conditions across the state had one major utility’s contact center agents stuck at home with the local contact centers empty. A senior executive of this utility made a call to their outsource partner on a Friday evening requesting that they try and have 100 CSRs on the phones to answer calls from customers by noon on Saturday. The outsourcer had 75 agents on board by 9:00 a.m. and more than 100 before noon. The situation lasted for days with the partner staffing agents 24 hours a day.

September 20, 2015 – After a hometown NFL football game, a fan ran their car into a pole and knocked out a transformer taking more than 50,000 customers out of service. The utility made an immediate call to their outsource partner and the small staff on hand at the center was increased by 25 CSRs by utilizing the outsourcers work-at-home agents. They assisted the utility into the evening until service was restored and played a major role in easing a tense situation with the utility’s customers.

Small utilities have different needs

Small EMCs or municipalities find that a pool of agents and sharing a supervisor works fine to meet their limited after-hours needs. With a much smaller customer base, they typically won’t have service interrupted for 30,000+ customers at any one time and can utilize their contact center staff and other employees to handle the phones for an event. However, some do invest in an insurance policy type arrangement with an outsourced partner. This could involve paying a monthly fee for the assurance that a certain number of agents will be on the phones within a specified number of hours, if needed.

Because of the cost associated with staffing at least one individual to work nights and weekends – often a management-level employee, the savings realized by the smaller utility can have an even greater impact on the costs associated with after-hours coverage.

All utilities, no matter the size, monitor weather forecasts via Doppler radar and are proactive in getting internal linemen, contractors and tree crews on hand to respond to situations outside the contact center. As a general rule, most utilities are also proactive in their outreach to customers warning them ahead of a weather event to have an Emergency Supply Kit including flashlights, new batteries, bottled water, battery-operated clock radio, cell phone, non-perishable food and a cooler with ice for perishable items.

Likewise, utilities should prepare its staffing in advance of an emergency. Consider what extra staff may be required, as well as, contingency plans if many of those agents cannot physically get to the center because of a more severe weather event.

 

Wally Sherer's picture

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