Six Characteristics of Award-Winning Outage Communications – Part Three: Metrics and Agility

By Russ Henderson, Senior Research Manager –

In part one this three-part blog series, we discussed the importance of strategy and internal organization for building an exceptional outage communications program. In part two, we talked about the need to provide information through customers’ most-preferred channels as well as leverage a variety of tactics during major events.

Now, let’s discuss the last two characteristics of award-winning outage communications programs.

Measure success within the context of the customer experience

When I first started researching outage communications in the utility industry for Chartwell a decade ago this month, most utilities rarely sought feedback from customers. Aside from leveraging J.D. Power, the most common method for tracking success with outage communications was a large survey conducted annually by the utility that asked customers about a huge number of customer touchpoints.

The shortcomings of this method are obvious, today. Customers were being asked about outages that might have happened many months ago, leading to data that wasn’t very reliable or actionable. In fact, some utilities correlated customers’ recollections of outage events with actual operational data and found that they did not match up remotely.

That’s why it is no surprise that the fastest-growing method of gathering customer data, today, is post-event surveys.  In 2015, just 13% were using post-event surveys. Now it’s about 61% and growing.

This makes sense, of course. Most utilities are now using at least one channel to send proactive push alerts to customers – whether text, email or voice. And it’s very easy to send a survey link along with a restore message.

Even better, utilities are now getting good data from the customer because those memories are still fresh in their minds. If you ask customers about their satisfaction with their ETR accuracy, the data will be far more actionable for improving accuracy in the future.

Also, with a post-event survey you can be dynamic; you can change your questions if you want to measure changes you’ve made in your outage communications. For example, if you added crew status or changed your crew status messaging, you can see how those changes affect satisfaction in real time.

As a side note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we at Chartwell are working on a pilot project with several utilities to develop a standardized post-event benchmarking survey that will enable participating utilities to benchmark against one another in outage communications. Please let us know if you’re interested in learning more.

Be agile

The utilities that have excelled in this challenging time over the past two years or so have shown a remarkable ability to be agile, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, storms, wildfires, winter events, changing customer expectations and more. Having that real-time customer feedback is crucial for this, as well as having a cross-functional team that can act on this data immediately.

For example, with so many customers working from home and/or home schooling since the COVID lockdowns began last year, we have heard from utilities that customers

  • Have higher accuracy expectations for ETRs
  • Are less tolerant of updated ETRs
  • Are more sensitive to momentary outages and planned outages
  • Are more likely to enroll for push alerts if prompted

Agile utilities were able to respond to each of these quickly by changing their ETR messaging, reducing the number of updated ETRs and ramping up marketing for push alerts. A number of utilities are now updating their process for planned outages – a customer experience journey neglected by many until recently.

In order to respond to this decreased tolerance, Southern California Edison made a number of changes related to planned outages. The company is doing fewer planned outages at once and instead increasing the number of crews dedicated to them so that they can restore customers’ power more quickly.

SCE also changed the language the company uses to refer to planned outages. The company began calling them “essential” outages to convey the message that, if SCE doesn’t do the needed work now, it will only cause even longer-duration outages in the future.

Best practices like these, as well as lessons learned and new initiatives on the horizon, are discussed on a monthly basis by the members of Chartwell’s Outage Communications Leadership Council, which has been around for 15 years and comprises more than 50 leading utilities. To learn more about the council and how you can join the conversation, please feel free to contact me.