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BGE handles howling, and hurricane

Aspects of customer engagement will fall in the realm of behavioral science and supporting technologies, but Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) recently showed how a utility can achieve immediate results.

You may recall that I followed BGE's rate case last year concerning its application for approval of advanced metering infrastructure, coverage that did not flatter the utility.

See the final piece, "BGE Wins Smart Meter Approval, With Conditions," which contains links to preceding articles.

But praise is due for one aspect of BGE's approach to its customers. I stumbled onto their blog site and followed the arc of Hurricane Irene-related blogs by BGE executives, customer comments and BGE's responses. Two executives involved gave simple, clear explanations of BGE's preparations, its process for outage prioritization, the resources it brought to bear and the results. Every customer comment, no matter how heated, received a calm, detailed response.

This direct, transparent interaction may have included the occasional boilerplate reassurance, but the effort apparently succeeded in de-fanging some frustrations. Over time, in less urgent circumstances, this level of high-touch interaction may give way to more automated means of engagement. But in an era that strives for more "automated means of engagement," this example is worthy of examination, even emulation.

I extracted three lessons from BGE's blogs. And I close by tracing the content of eight blogs before, during and after the storm. 

No. 1: Have a public face. The BGE blog is ongoing, but as the storm approached, the utility's "public face" included Jeannette Mills, senior vice president, customer relations, and Chris Burton, senior vice president, gas and electric operations and planning.

No. 2: Engage, explain, inform. The arc of Mills' and Burton's blogs began before the storm hit and picked up after impact and customer comments tracked with the ambient urgency. Both executives spent time giving relevant information and anticipating concerns, then gave sincere, specific, comment-by-comment responses to help each customer.  

No. 3: Listen and respond. Rather than talk past an angry customer by offering corporate messages disguised as a response, Mills in particular clearly took pains to "hear" her customers' written complaints, gave whatever information she could and directed them to a live operator for follow-up.

Tracing the blog headlines should reveal why I find this instructive. 

Aug. 25: "Following and Preparing for Irene," by Jeannette Mills (1 comment). Mills calmly explained BGE's preparations and the grid's vulnerabilities. A photograph of service trucks jamming a parking lot linked to a portfolio of pictures of massive preparations. 

Aug. 27: "We Can Weather Irene Together," by Jeannette Mills (4 comments). Mills gives the outage reporting phone number, the number for special needs customers and a list of emergency items to help citizens survive the storm.

Aug. 28: "An Update on Hurricane Irene Damage and Service Restoration Process," by Chris Burton (52 comments). Burton explains why outages may persist or even recur and why restoration takes time to perform safely. Customer comments are often scathing, occasionally supportive. Burton answers each one.

Aug. 29: "Hurricane Irene Damage and Service Restoration Process Continues," by Chris Burton (64 comments). Some, ironically, fault BGE for "lack of transparency." Some comments reflect an understanding of restoration complexities and offer constructive insights into local circuit issues. Supportive remarks increase.

Sept. 1: "Restoring Power to All BGE Customers Safely is Our Number One Priority," by Jeannette Mills (43 comments). Mills acknowledged the frustration of long restoration delays, reiterated BGE's commitment, noted the resources deployed in human terms (5,500 people, some working 16-hour days) and emphasized that safety takes time.

Sept. 2: "The ETR (estimated time of restoration) Challenge—Why It's Difficult to Provide a Restoration Time After Severe, Widespread Damage," by Jeannette Mills (25 comments). Homing in on the most common (legitimate) complaint, Mills explained the complexities affecting ETRs and BGE's improvements since 2003's Hurricane Isabel.

Sept. 4: "We Called and They Answered," by Chris Burton (4 comments). Burton noted that 3,000 BGE personnel were assisted by nearly 2,000 linemen and tree experts from 18 states who left home to help restore power to Maryland residents.

Sept. 7: "Thanks to Our Customers for Their Support During Hurricane Irene," by Jeannette Mills (0 comments). Once power was restored, no one posted a "thank you" on the blog site, but Mills noted customers' appreciation through phone calls and emails.

Natural disasters can cast utilities in the villain-or-hero light. (Lights off = villain. Lights on = hero.) An alternative would be a year-round, ongoing effort with media, civic groups and schools that capitalizes on BGE's admirable approach here. If BGE listens carefully to substantive complaints about problem locations, learns whether its modes of communication really worked and reviews its procedures—no doubt it is doing all these things—it could easily deliver a best-practices seminar.

Meanwhile, I'll be interviewing Jeannette Mills today for the inside scoop and will share the results in another column.

Many of these issues will be discussed at the Knowledge2011 Executive Summit in Amelia Island, Florida, Nov. 7-9.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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