Power Outages and Customer Service

Posted by Zara Brunner

The Baldrige Cheermudgeon is rubbing off on me.  It’s my time to rant.  For those of you who live in the Montgomery County Maryland area or who heard about our barrage of power outages, you can probably relate.

This summer has brought the DC metro area record high temperatures, a 3.6 magnitude earthquake (on my birthday!), tornado-like winds, flash flooding, flying tree limbs, and powerful thunderstorms.  Some may say nature is trying to tell us something.  One thing is certain: customers without lights or air conditioning have been trying to tell their power company something.

Let me give you an example.  Following a one minute, intense thunderstorm in July, it took two days for my power to be restored.  Okay two days is a long time to be without power (though many were in the dark much longer), but at least everything was back to normal right?  Not quite.  Once the power was restored, neighbors noticed a small fire where some tree branches were touching the wire and called the fire department.  The firemen came out, acknowledged the fire, and pretty much said “Call the power company.”  Apparently, unless the tree caught on fire, there was nothing the fire department could do.  So they left.  When we returned home and heard this from our neighbors we were rather surprised, but did as advised and called our power company.  Customer service agreed that this was a potentially dangerous situation and they would send a crew soon.  Thank goodness!  As a mother of young children, I certainly wouldn’t want electrical fires burning unabated in my front yard for very long.  If the fire department can’t help, then surely the power company will get right on it.  Right?  Well, not so much.  After at least half a dozen follow-up calls over the course of a week (yes: a WEEK!), we finally heard from customer service that we were one of 3,000 people on their list who had similar tree limbs-touching wires-causing fire situations.  (Yep: 3,000!)  Well fortunately nature took care of us, as the tree branches eventually burned to a crisp, broke off and fell to the wires below–no longer posing a fire risk.  And, despite assurances that the power company would come out to safely remove the limbs (by when, next July?), we took matters into our own hands and hired someone to get rid of them.

So all this leads me to conclude that there is a great big opportunity for my utility company to look at parts of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to examine:

1. How do you govern and fulfill your societal responsibilities? (Category 1.2)

2. How do you develop your strategy? (Category 2.1)

3. How do you engage customers to serve their needs and build relationships and how do you obtain and use information from your customers?  (Category 3.1 and 3.2), and last but not least:

4. How do you manage your information, organizational knowledge, and information technology.  And in the event of an emergency, how do you ensure the continued availability of hardware or software systems?  (Category 4.2)

CandlesThere are likely other areas to consider, but this would be a good start.  In the meantime, sales in home generators, candles, flashlights, and batteries are going up and we all should update our emergency preparedness plans.

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About Barbara Fischer

NIST Baldrige
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4 Responses to Power Outages and Customer Service

  1. Ron Marafioti says:

    Thanks, Zara. It sure sounds like an influential customer(s) (maybe some forward-thinking organizations like NIST) need to convince the power utilities that share the power supply side of the customer service equation to invest in alternative ‘green’ power sources, like Bloom boxes (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/18/60minutes/main6221135.shtml )…other investors may include the numerous Gov’t organizations and large employers in the DC metropolitan area…and, of course, some of the homes around the DC area that are castle-like. Good luck!!

  2. GreenDriver LV says:

    But–and I preface by saying this is highly frustrating–what’s the point of customer service in a monopoly environment? I doubt most residents have any choice in power utility companies so our patronage is guaranteed, regardless of how they behave or treat customers (unless we all go full solar and get off the grid, at great personal expense)… They just don’t need to care as they have no threat of customers leaving and thus need not fear subsequent negative financial impact (in fact, sending someone to trim those trees would have been costly to the utility so there’s no doubt it wasn’t urgent).

  3. Zara Brunner says:

    Thanks for the link Ron. That is certainly out-of-the-box thinking. I’m all for renewable energy. GreenDriver: you have a point about lack of choice in some instances. Yet alternative energy sources are options, as well as filing complaints. Many in the area have done that which has brought about some regulatory/legislative scrutiny and certain requirements initially. So it’s not altogether without consequence. Voice of the customer still does matter in the long run in my opinion.

  4. Thanks for the post. Good customer service is essential for any business to survive in this competitive market and your relationship with your customers will make or break your business so focusing in customer service is really a must.

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