Effective ice storm customer communication is a two-way street – flowing inward and outward seamlessly. Customers need to report outages and downed wires. Utilities need to convey critical information to ensure that restoration efforts are positioned in the best possible light. Facilitating the inward flow of communication requires an emphasis on channel availability and access, whereas the outward flow of communication requires an emphasis on the delivery of cohesive, consistent messages designed to build trust and confidence in the utility’s ability to restore service as quickly as possible.
During blue sky operations, the “normal” communications plan will suffice, but this plan will probably not be adequate for major ice storms. Every utility should have an ice storm customer communications plan that addresses the unique challenges caused by events of this size and scope. The image of the organization can be positively or negatively impacted by public perceptions of the handling of the storm event. No matter how successfully a utility conducts its restoration activities, poor and inaccurate communications will outweigh many of the positive aspects of those efforts. This crisis communications plan should be designed with an eye on maximizing customers’ understanding of the severity of the situation, minimizing customer frustration, reducing the likelihood of repeat calls to resolve problems, and avoiding complaints to regulators.
Objectives of Ice Storm Customer Communications
- Reach all stakeholder groups in their preferred manner and with information specific to their needs.
- Demonstrate that the utility knows the customer is without service.
- Convey a sense of urgency about restoring service.
- Provide consistent, synchronized, and accurate outage information and updates on restoration progress.
- Provide customers with accurate and reasonable ETRs.
Components of the Ice Storm Customer Communications Plan
- An outbound communication strategy designed to proactively reduce incoming calls.
- A list of all the internal and external communication channels / touch points, including non-traditional options like vehicular loud-speakers, door hangers, and outbound robo-calling.
- A list of commonly-requested information / pre-scripted messages about things such as service restoration priorities, explaining ETRs, how to use the website outage map, providing storm preparedness and restoration safety tips.
- A process to activate the third-party call center vendor or mutual assistance partner to help manage dramatic spikes in call volume.
- The assignment of specific roles and tasks, such as a social media specialist, community liaison team, and public relations.
- Specific roles for the message development team, including responsibilities for message development and approval.
- A process to activate and train second role personnel to help manage the phones.
- A process to manage the outage map updates, including the provision of data redundancy to help ensure the map itself will not go down.
- A customer complaint escalation / resolution procedure.
The bottom line is that the crisis communications plan is akin to a roadmap designed to help the company get from the current state (outage situation) to the ideal state (full service restoration) with the least amount of customer dissatisfaction. Customers want to feel like they have a voice, and they want easily accessible, accurate, and timely information on when their service will be restored. Developing an ice storm customer communications plan based on these overarching principles will go a long way toward minimizing stakeholder dissatisfaction during emergency situations.