Eric J. Charette, Intergraph Corp., and Len Socha, Wisconsin Public Service Corp.
The insistence for on-demand information is part of everyday culture.
Self-service websites that provide access to account and service offerings online also are on the rise.
Expectations have grown extensively, especially because smart phones and tablets are in the hands of nearly every consumer.
Ratepayers expect real-time updates and don't want to wait to speak with customer service representatives.
Less verbal communication and providing services to customers on a timeline that doesn't always match normal business hours is the trend, so utilities are investing significantly in their external-facing websites to keep up with demand.
Utilities have responded to this trend by leveraging technology to enhance the outage management customer experience.
Most utility websites feature some standard static information on how to report an outage and also feature content on the utility restoration practices and safety information.
Some utilities have taken this one step further by providing real-time information about current outages, restoration times and geospatial displays of outage locations.
Others have been more progressive by allowing customers to report outages, check the status of their service and receive updates through social media.
By publishing information to outage websites and providing self-service applications, utilities help customers stay informed before, during and after storms.
Before the Storm
Informing customers before outages can help smooth the process after the lights go out.
An informative website is a good start-one that contains outage information and is easy to locate via any Internet search engine.
Having a mobile version of the website for smart phones and tablets is fundamental because customers access the Internet from multiple channels.
Other assets to the site are diagrams and videos that explain the flow of electricity from generation through transmission to distribution, as well as individual meters.
Knowing the basics makes it easier for customers to understand the strategies and processes utilities use to restore power.
Providing information about common outage causes, why they occur and answers to frequently asked questions will lead to more knowledgeable consumers.
Safety tips also are important so customers know how to prepare for storms.
Simple instructions to avoid downed power lines and what to do once the power goes out can save lives.
During the Storm
Once the lights go out, customers should know how to reach their utilities to report outages.
Many utilities use seasonal billing inserts, radio and television ads, billboards in the service territory or social media to provide contact information to report outages.
Although smart meters can provide information to outage management systems (OMS), power companies still rely on consumer input to locate outages accurately.
Having multiple methods for customers to report power outages is important.
The days of speaking to a customer service representative or reporting an outage through an interactive voice response (IVR) system are gone. Some utilities allow customers to report home and business outages directly through the utilities' websites via secure account login.
Soon, public safety affiliates will be able to key in an address or intersection or select a point on an interactive map that features an aerial photograph of utility facilities.
Using social media, some utilities allow customers to tweet outage information and include photographs of damage or even report an outage through Facebook.
It has become mainstream for utilities to offer applications so customers can log outages from their smart phones.
Once a customer reports an outage, it is critical for a utility's customer service center to provide accurate updates for outages in the service territory.
Research shows customers are more tolerant of frequent outages as long as they're informed while the power is out.
Integration from an OMS to the utility website can provide information about outages with tabular lists or a display on a geospatial map.
Utilities can use social media to post information about storm restoration efforts at the corporate level.
In the past, this information was available only through utility media relations. Now it's available in real time to anyone with Internet access.
Utilities also can push updates to individual customers through automated phone calls, text messages and emails.
Conversely, utilities may adopt a secondary approach in which customers request and receive outage updates on demand through secure accounts on the utilities' websites, which give them real-time information on restoration progress.
After the Storm
Most people quickly forget the details about an outage once it's restored, but others want to know what happened.
Providing storm aftermath figures can promote a utility's efficiency in restoring power after disasters.
Utilities can be proactive in addressing customer inquiries about outage history by allowing them to search for outage details.
The OMS stores restoration information within its archives, so utilities easily can create a front end for customers to request information based on their account information.
Giving customers access to this information through a self-service application will reduce phone calls and improve overall customer service.
Wisconsin Public Service Corp. (WPS) has been an industry leader in outage management since 1981 when it developed a trouble order system for its after-hours center to replace a manual paper process.
From there, WPS built its service restoration system based on IFM data, which went live in the late '90s, and began providing estimated restoration times to customers.
In 2006, WPS deployed a commercial off-the-shelf OMS solution from Intergraph, which included an interface to automated meter reading, enabling its dispatchers to ping meters for power restoration verification.
With more than 125 years of experience in responding to outages, WPS has remained proactive in providing the highest level of customer satisfaction every day, especially during storm restoration.
When WPS went live with its current OMS, it also enhanced its external website by adding static content to provide education on safety tips, the power restoration process, common causes of power outages and why the lights go out.
In addition, WPS began to publish real-time outage numbers and summaries of customers affected by district.
This was the first time customers and the media could obtain this information readily on demand without having to speak with customer service representatives or obtain an update on storm restoration progress from news releases or radio and television broadcasts.
This tabular information was the first step toward providing the highest level of customer experience during outages.
Within two years, WPS began publishing maps to its external website that display the service territory with colorization for outage magnitudes by city or zip code with an automatic refresh every 15 minutes.
On Oct. 27, 2010, WPS expanded its offering for outage updates by posting its first tweet:
The use of Twitter has expanded since then to include crew updates, notes on how to report power outages, current call volume and wait times as well as updated restoration times.
Since then, WPS has increased its frequency of tweets on outage information dramatically as social media becomes more widely accepted by its customers.
Also in 2010, WPS began to offer customers the ability to report outages online and view the status of their particular outages after logging into their accounts.
This has expanded customers' options to communicate power outages with WPS and has reduced the number of customer service calls taken by representatives and processed by IVR.
The latest project from the WPS team includes a complete rebuild of the website.
The new look has a responsive design that enables webpages to resize automatically to fit the browser size of smart phones and tablets, which make it easier to use on mobile devices.
WPS is building a smart phone application that will let customers report their power outages and check the status of existing outages.
This will be expanded to send outage alerts to customers and provide updated information on power restoration, outage causes and information about the crews assigned to the repairs.
WPS will leverage the smart phone application across other business units and plans to expand the application capability to include bill payments, bill alerts and abnormal electricity usage.
WPS has received high scores on customer satisfaction surveys providing accurate, timely outage information through channels that will propagate additional investment in this area.
Smart meters can report power outages and crews can respond faster to reduce outage durations, but customers in Wisconsin and other parts of the country can stay better informed during storms by accessing their utilities' online storm portals.
Eric J. Charette joined Intergraph in 2006. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Michigan Technological University and is a registered professional engineer in Wisconsin and Alabama.
Len Socha is director of technical services in electric distribution engineering at Wisconsin Public Service Corp., a subsidiary of Integrys Energy Group, where he is the client lead of the InService Outage Management System and the ARCOS Callout System. He has a a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin.
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