What made BG&E's system more reliable than Pepco's?
Reliability and customer information systems (CIS) are rarely mentioned in the same breath. After all, utilities spend millions on their outage management systems to help ensure reliability. But in the wake of Hurricane Isabel last fall, the CIS at Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E) gets kudos for helping the utility keep on top of a widespread outage.
Although BG&E sang the praises of its customer system after the hurricane, neighboring Pepco was left cursing its new system while explaining to regulators and the press why it notified hundreds of customers that their power was restored when it wasn't.
In many ways, the different experiences of the two utilities offer an object lesson in how the humble CIS can make a mighty difference in recovering from a major outage.
"Our [CIS] performed magnificently during the hurricane," crows Tom Pelligrini, director of customer care at BG&E. The company handled more than 700,000 calls during Hurricane Isabel, with three quarters of the utility's customers without power at the height of the outage. In sharp contrast, he notes, was the company's performance during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, during which BG&E processed around 200,000 calls. That low number was due to a limited number of available telephone trunk lines, Pelligrini says. Regardless of the cause, he characterizes the company's service then as "horrendous."
Between 1999 and 2003, BG&E installed several upgrades to its CIS, and it seems to have paid off for the company. Yet in the same time span, Pepco purchased a $10 million CIS that seemingly led to several embarrassments for the company during Hurricane Isabel, including:
- Automated calls to 550 customers stating that their power had been restored, when it had not;
- Customers being told there was no record of any previous outage call, while customers said they had called several times already; and
- Customer service representatives who seemed unaware that neighbors also had called to report the outage in the area.
Publicly, in a letter to local authorities, Pepco President William Sim blamed at least some of the company's woes on its new automated answering system and said his company had identified and corrected the cause of the customer misnotification. A Pepco spokesman added that the company was continuing to review problems with the system.
While all the investigations and reviews were not yet complete at press time, the link between a solid CIS and recovery from a major outage couldn't have been made more clear.
A Tale of Smart Outsourcing
Since 1999 and Hurricane Floyd, BG&E has upgraded its CIS in multiple ways. Pelligrini says that in 1999 the company added a new predictive dialer and new call-management system, among other system upgrades, and also contracted out its overflow calls. In 2000, BG&E upgraded its phone switch and added a second one, and in 2001, it added a new guidance system for its customer service representatives.
Of all these incremental improvements, the outsourcing of call overflow seems to have made the biggest difference in BG&E's handling of outage calls during Hurricane Isabel. BG&E itself still has only 200 trunk lines for calls, but as Pelligrini explains, its outsource partner can handle 100,000 calls per hour. When a severe outage hits, calls to the company's outage reporting number are routed to the outsourcing center. Once that center issues a work order, the information is sent back to BG&E for action.
Having some type of geographical dispersion of the utility's call center is key to managing outages well, says Julie Hance, senior director of applications and services manager at Orcom.
Utilities can achieve such geographical dispersion by locating call centers in different areas locally, which prevents a centralized call center from being the victim of an outage itself.
Yet in large-scale, massive blackouts, locally dispersed call centers may not be enough. "You can't put just put four guys in a truck and go fix [the local call center]. You can't just all of a sudden have a backup infrastructure," notes Hance. That is why many utilities turn to outsourcing for their outage calls during an event.
Location, Location, Location
Whether or not utilities choose to go with an outsourcing company for call management during an outage crisis, Hance says three components are necessary for all outage management plans:
- Ability to maintain current status of utility data;
- Having a backup plan in place and testing it often; and
- Ability to bring in additional personnel, or leverage personnel off-site.
As Len Turner, executive vice president of Orcom's client operations, points out, it's one thing for a utility to say it will have a geographical dispersion of systems and servers. "But if you do, yet don't have the people to run them, it's kind of a moot point, isn't it?" he asks.
As Hance explains, with outsourcing, when there's a weather disaster in Michigan, a utility there can tap resources outside the local area to keep call centers open and outage information flowing to the affected customer. Because the outsourcing company maintains resources to serve several clients, the affected utility is saved the cost and effort of redundant staffing in several locations.
One of the keys to effective outsourcing for outage management is ensuring up-to-date data mirroring, so that when records are switched over, there's no data loss. Without current data, of course, the outsourcing company's hands will be tied. Yet it isn't only a matter of mirroring data between the utility and the outsourcing com pany, according to Hance. She says the best practice for an outsourcer to mirror data is to maintain client data on geographically distant systems as well. Orcom, for example, maintains two data centers, one in New York, the other in Nebraska. In addition, Turner explains, the two centers swap primary and backup roles for a few days every month, to ensure proper functioning of both in the event of an emergency. (Editor's note: At press time, Alliance Data Systems acquired Orcom.)
Tying Together Outage Management and CIS
In addition to outsourcing its outage calls in 1999, BG&E in the second half of 2003 updated its old outage management system to more closely tie into its CIS. With the new system, data from the field goes to the outage management system and then to the CIS as well. As a result, Pellegrini says, the CIS updates outage information immediately. The company worked hard to integrate the two systems, he says, and as a result customer service representatives at the company have at their disposal much more information than ever before, such as whether a truck has been dispatched to a particular area, what the time estimates are for service restoration, and even whether field personnel are on site. "That's a big enhancement. ... I think this is going to be a tremendously faster and quicker way to get information to our customers, which is what they want," Pelligrini says.
Whether a utility decides to outsource or upgrade its own systems to incorporate CIS into its outage management plan, BG&E's Pelligrini advises taking an incremental approach to implementation. "Layer it in. Bring in a small piece, and make sure it runs properly before layering it across the entire [CIS] system."
And even more to the point: "Don't put anything out you're unsure about."
Considering the success Pelligrini had with his CIS system during Hurricane Isabel, that's deceptively simple advice.
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