In the summer of 2011, ComEd experienced the worst series of storms to strike northern Illinois in the utility's history.
All told, the utility experienced ten major storms that summer, resulting in outages that affected 2.6 million customers, more than twice the three-year average. During the most severe storm in July alone, there were 18,000 lightning strikes, damage to 600 transformers and 700 poles, and 850,000 customers left without power. In one particularly turbulent five-day period, more than 1 million calls were fielded by the call center.
In post-storm surveys, customers voiced their concerns not only about going without power, but also about a perceived lack of consistent outage communications from the utility: “You sent us to the web, and it was useless.” “Information was inconsistent -- different information depending on channel.” “Text messages were telling customers that power was restored, and it wasn’t.”
Leading up to 2011, the utility had done much to be proud of in the area of outage communications, including establishing a well-trafficked E-Customer Website and a popular texting service. Indeed, ComEd was one of the first utilities to implement a texting service for outages. So what went wrong that tumultuous summer?
What ComEd’s customer surveys reinforced was the need for consistent messaging across all communications channels as a way to improve the customer experience. As with many utilities, ComEd’s various communications channels evolved as independent interfaces over many years. Consequently, its outage communications system (OCS) was peppered with aging, point-to-point interfaces, and with timing (i.e., data latency) differences across communications channels that ranged from a few seconds to as much as 30 minutes. The result was inconsistent and often dated information being filtered to customers. With increasingly severe weather outbreaks leading to millions of customers clamoring for timely and accurate outage information, the OCS environment clearly had to change.
ComEd also engaged in internal reviews that highlighted numerous opportunities for operational improvement. Internal teams identified the need for integrated views of outage information, improved storm responder situational awareness/visualization, concurrent storm reporting, more accurate and timely information on crew locations, and better-planned outage reporting. At the same time, the IT team pushed for the retirement of homegrown applications in favor of a more flexible and less costly to maintain, standards-based OCS environment.
New OCS vision
The outcome of this feedback and review process was a refined vision for outage communications at ComEd. The utility would focus on improving delivery of consistent outage information -- “a single version of the truth” -- to internal teams and external customers. The OCS environment going forward would be based on an integrated platform for information management and proactive communications. Moreover, that platform would enable future analysis and reporting capabilities for other types of operational data.
Specifically, the new system would serve internal audiences through a business intelligence model, delivering knowledge through outage dashboards, summary tables and reports, and leveraging mobile devices (mobile outage maps, etc.). External audiences, including customers, media, local governments and regulatory bodies, would be served consistent outage data through a broad range of channels, ranging from the web and email to smartphone apps and text messages to interactive voice response and fax.
“Our customers were frustrated with the lack of consistent outage information they were receiving,” said Miguel Ortega, Director of Customer Technology and Support at ComEd. “We listened to our customers and took this feedback to heart by gaining a better understanding of the outage information they want to know and the various channels [via which] they prefer to access the information. Today, customers receive consistent outage information whether they access it on the web, via text, mobile app, online outage map, automated telephone system, or when speaking with a customer service representative.”
From a business-process perspective, the new OCS would intersect all areas of outage communication, including proactive communications; storm, blue-sky and planned-outage communications; and communications management. It would also address all latency issues related to timely and consistent communications to optimally support these processes.
In order for the new OCS to enable the various processes, business stakeholders were engaged through a series of workshops. This included engaging externally facing departments and functions such as the Customer Contact Center, eChannels and Large Customer Services, as well as ComEd Communication and External Affairs.
In the area of internal operations, a broad range of departments were engaged, including Asset Information & System Policy, Customer Operations, Distribution System Operations, Emergency Preparedness, and Reliability Reporting. Storm management functions were also engaged, including Distribution System Operations, Emergency Preparedness, and the Emergency Response Organization.
Without this inclusiveness, along with Executive Steering Committee engagement and support, the OCS project would never have met its overall objective of increased customer satisfaction and operational awareness through consistent, timely and high-quality communications.
Architecting a solution
To deliver timely and consistent communication, ComEd built its new system on an architecture that allows diverse systems -- including an outage management system (OMS) from leading utility software solution vendor Ventyx, an ABB company, as well as lockout, GIS, CIS, resource and other systems -- to feed data through a single interface layer into a single outage information data warehouse. A rich set of advanced analytics (also provided by Ventyx ) reside on top of this core platform, providing functionality to drive operational and near-real-time analytics, outage communication management, storm management, asset reliability analytics, crew and resource insights and customer impact analytics. A second interface layer enables bidirectional communications between the Ventyx advanced analytics application and ComEd’s front-end applications for customer communications (e.g., call center, text, email, interactive outage maps, etc.), as well as decision-support dashboards, enterprise outage maps and reporting for consumption by ComEd’s internal users. The result is more accurate, consistent and low-latency information all around.
Outcomes: 2012 and beyond
ComEd had the new OCS in place in time for the 2012 summer storm season, where it was used for real-time communications management and operational planning during five serious storms. How well did it perform? The new communication capability was one of the significant improvements that led to ComEd’s overall customer satisfaction score increasing by 31 points, the second best improvement among utilities in the large segment and one of the top ten largest gains among all 126 utilities included in the study. ComEd was also recently ranked as one of the top 10 utilities in terms of smart grid maturity by Greentech Media, with customer engagement being one of the key ranking criteria. Municipalities signaled their increased satisfaction as well -- quite unlike 2011, there were no requests for ComEd to attend town meetings in 2012.
“We are excited about the addition of our Outage Communication System,” said Cheryl Maletich, Vice President of Distribution System Operations. “It allows us to efficiently develop storm restoration strategies using one platform by integrating information from field resources with information from our storm restoration process website. We rolled out this new tool with our employees in the spring, and we were able to utilize it during our 2012 and 2013 storm seasons. It has also allowed us to have enhanced oversight on customer communication around estimated time of restoration and probable cause for each interruption.”
There have been more than 123,000 downloads of ComEd’s smartphone app. This app allows customers to report power outages and manage their accounts from their smart phones. Nearly 730,000 customers are signed up for ComEd’s two-way text messaging service. The company expects these numbers to continue to grow as customers use these tools more and more.
Since this initial “trial by storm front,” ComEd has added a slew of new capabilities to the system, such as geospatial visualization of planned outages, more than 40 decision-support dashboards and reports for internal use, an interactive outage map on its website, and the ability for customers to report an outage through the utility's Facebook page, which has more than 57,000 fans.
It’s evident that customers do not compare utilities to other utilities. Rather, utilities are compared to firms and organizations in other industries, and that sets the bar pretty high when industries such as financial services are taken into account. If there is an overriding lesson to be learned from ComEd’s experiences, it is that it is not enough to invest in multiple communications channels such as mobile web, mobile apps, text and social media, no matter how inventive you may get. What is important is that behind all the channels is an OCS infrastructure that is uniformly low-latency and capable of delivering an authoritative and trusted single version of the truth for:
• Outage communications through any number of channels
• Internal business intelligence/decision support processes that help drive operational excellence in the face of whatever nature decides to throw in one’s direction.
Gene O’Donnell is Customer Operations Project Manager at ComEd. Mahesh Mikkilineni is IT Project Manager at ComEd.