Restoration Communications: Warn, Estimate, Advise

Whether we’re talking restoration communications or something else, the complaint is universal, applicable to just about any situation where people work together on a process or task but come up short. People at the bottom blame the top for lack of direction. Those at the top blame their subordinates for not sharing enough information. Go through any corporate strategic planning exercise and improving communication is bound to be mentioned as at least a partial cure for whatever ails the organization.

Frankly, it’s no wonder that poor communication becomes everyone’s favorite complaint. Just because we’ve been trying to do it all our lives, we think communicating is an easy thing to do. But it’s not. Words can be ambiguous, syntax can be confusing. Personal attitudes or emotions can twist how messages are interpreted. The medium chosen may be inappropriate or inaccessible. Even the message itself, especially when driven by internal motivations, may be ill-advised. And without feedback, we don’t know if our messages have been received and understood.

The recent trend of extreme weather conditions has provided a target-rich environment for complaints about poor restoration communications with customers before and during emergency restoration efforts. Citizen journalists, mainstream media, local officials, politicians, regulators all seem to relish the opportunity to cite examples of “Failure to Communicate.”

Perhaps part of this criticism comes from an inability to criticize anything else. It takes a lot of expertise to understand a utility’s infrastructure, how to maintain it and systematically fix it when it is damaged. On the other hand, trying to get customers to understand all that complexity is futile. Except for a minority population of infrastructure geeks, most people should not have to understand how it all works. More importantly, they don’t want to.

What customers do want is to be given sufficient warning of what to expect so they can prepare to ride out the emergency. They want a reasonable estimate of how long they may be without service. They may need advice to help them do it. And they don’t want to have to wade through a lot of self-serving corporate image fluff in the process.

Basic Goals for Restoration Communications

Warn

Don’t be shy. Level with your customers and give them a worst-case scenario in no uncertain terms. If damage turns out to be light, anyone who says you “cried wolf” won’t gain much traction. But if you underestimate potential damages, you’ll read it on page one. This is a time for leadership visibility (cf. NJ Gov. Christie pre-Sandy) so get your president before the cameras and make it plain that your customers have to be as well prepared as you are. Do it early enough for your customers to prepare. And show some sincere concern for your customers. Outages suck.  This isn’t business as usual.

Estimate

Take a close look at your process for estimating restoration times (ERT’s). Sometimes crews get overloaded with too many work orders to complete on a shift. If all those jobs aren’t completed on schedule, customers who had been told that “you should be restored today, the job has been assigned to a crew” will get an unpleasant surprise when they aren’t restored. Sometimes crews work all day without calling in their status as they complete each job, creating a moving target for ERT’s. Some companies combat that by assigning only one job at a time, forcing the crews to call in after each job to get more work.

Even if you have the finest ERT process imaginable, it is probably wise to build in some leeway. While pinpoint accuracy may be necessary for managing crews, it is not an asset when it comes to managing customer expectations. So “overestimate and over deliver.” Tell customers they will be restored in three days when you think you can do it in two. Remember, you are helping your customers plan to take care of their own comfort and well-being. Giving them an overly optimistic expectation doesn’t help anyone.

Advise

Most utilities have boilerplate text on their websites and in their news releases about steps customers can take to ride out an emergency. Given recent events and technological trends, it might be a good idea to give that boilerplate another look. Do you have YouTube videos on personal generator safety? Are there references to area shelters that take pets? Do you have helpful advice on recharging cell phones, iPads, etc.? This might be a good time to brainstorm new messages and new ways of conveying them before and during emergencies.

Basically, the restoration process has to be firing on all cylinders in order for good communications to be possible. People want real time outage information…and they want it NOW!

If you do a good enough job with restoration communications – Warning, Estimating and Advising – you should not have to worry about providing a lot of useless “Corporate Image Fluff.” There are, of course, legitimate ways to enhance your customers’ understanding beyond what your customers want and need to hear, but that’s something for another article. So stay tuned.

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