How Climate Change Impacts Utility Customer Service

by | Jan 18, 2011

Consider this: you lead a large energy company that enjoys a reputation for quality customer service. Without warning, a natural disaster – such as a flood or earthquake – strikes and interrupts customer care. You turn to the company’s business continuity plan and realize how dependent it is on the state’s power, water, telecommunications and transportation infrastructure – all impacting the ability to provide support to your frantic customers.

As many business interruptions go unreported, the negative impact on customer service is hard to measure. Research suggests that organizations stand to lose between $84,000 and $108,000 for every hour of IT systems downtime. This incredible loss can be averted with a business continuity plan that also takes the geographical location of customer service into account.

Climate challenges customer service

The effect of climate change on customer service is emerging as a top issue for 2011. This past year alone saw numerous floods, heat waves, and droughts across the world. Recently, British advisory firm Maplecroft’s 2010 Natural Disaster Index ranked 229 countries on the likelihood of being hit by a natural disaster. The U.S. was ranked a “high risk” while Canada was classified as a “medium risk.” Due to climate change, extreme weather events are occurring with greater frequency and in many cases, with greater intensity.

Customer service represents the company’s reputation and brand. As tools that enable better customer service – such as smart grid technologies – promise quicker response times and energy efficiency, companies are responsible for providing customer care and educating the public on these new methods. Contact centers, which communicate through phone, email, online chat, and social media support, represent a lifeline to customers.

If a contact center goes down – whether from natural disaster, infrastructure disaster (like power loss), or people-initiated disaster (intentional or not) – companies must be prepared for a variety of unexpected events that can greatly impact customer service, especially when busy tones or long hold times are unacceptable. With increased weather extremes and the potential for downed communication and power lines (even live wires), people may have no ability to reach the utility. In this case, a critical reporting structure is lost. This represents a serious operational challenge and points to the need to plan for customer service without interruption.

Choose a recovery site based on geo-location

If a utility relies on a single contact center – or even several centers in the same part of the world – they can lose their ability to communicate with customers when disaster hits. This is an underlying reason for the trend towards recovery sites established further away from the disaster zone. With an essential service like electricity, geographic diversity becomes even more important with the need to have support facilities located on different power grids, different water sources and different telecommunications networks.

With growing customer service demands and the potential for customer care and power delivery in the same state to be affected by natural threats, companies find that partnering with a specialized contact center firm is an effective way to ensure “always on” customer service in the face of local disaster.

Benefits of external providers

  • Business process outsourcing (BPO) contact center firms have the expertise, economies of scale, geographic diversity, and redundant call center technology to keep business going.
  • They place a high value on ensuring customers that service will be there if disaster strikes.
  • Like a utility, many BPO contact center providers are risk adverse.  As a result, good contact center providers will have rigorous business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place, often covering events and scenarios not always considered or tested by many organizations.
  • BPO providers also have a wealth of information covering how to staff for unusual situations, how to test real world scenarios (and not just equipment failures), how to re-route call traffic to other locations, and how to implement all of this as quickly as possible.

Forward-looking utilities are broadening their partnership approach, working with contact center providers to deliver seamless customer care. The current trend of “best-shore” solutions offers customer service from different states, as well as different parts of the world.

Reliance on third parties for mission critical services that impact processes, lives and the bottom line is becoming a necessity. The need to be prepared for every eventuality has become fundamental at a time when customer expectations for availability and quality of service continue to increase. In a world facing increased weather extremes, companies really do need a solid customer service plan when Mother Nature chooses not to cooperate.

Case in point – business as usual during the storm

Take a recent example from TELUS International, the global arm of Canada’s leading telecommunication company. TELUS International employs 12,500 and is geographically diversified with call centers in Manila, Guatemala, El Salvador and Las Vegas. In September 2009, contact centers in Manila were hammered by Typhoon Ketsana. In just 24 hours, Manila was saturated by more than 18 inches of rain, the most rainfall in a single day since 1965. Flood waters wiped out the homes of almost 400,000 Filipinos, displaced some 2,000,000 residents, and left more than 200 dead. The government declared a state of emergency.

Despite widespread damage and outages, TELUS International’s OC12 network and two high bandwidth cable connections, including E300 failover redundant circuits, made TELUS International’s operations 100 percent redundant. The company’s geographic diversity allowed for quick re-routing of calls to both its North American and Latin American centers so that customers did not receive a busy signal when calling.

In this case, infrastructure wasn’t the problem, but getting people to work was. By using a range of innovative communications techniques including local radio stations, texting and an enhanced transportation program to pick up agents throughout the city, TELUS was able to get back to normal far quicker than many other contact center providers in the area, many of whom suffered time offline. The result for our clients, including a large U.S. utility, was business as usual at home, despite serious turbulence abroad. It was a good example of how partnering with a global contact center expert can complement internal customer care capabilities to deliver always on, uninterrupted customer service.

Douglas Hartman is Executive Director Energy Solutions at TELUS International – a top provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients. TELUS International is the global arm of TELUS, a leading national telecommunications company in Canada, with $9.7 billion of annual revenue and 12.1 million customer connections. TELUS is considered a major BCP (Business Continuity Planning) model for corporate environments in Canada and chairs the Canada wide BCP council. For more information visit:

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