The Virtual Call Center

May 1, 2010
Customer service representatives handle overflow calls during emergencies using the Mutual Assistance Routing System.

The Mutual Assistance Routing System (MARS) is a high-tech solution to provide customer care backup assistance to member utilities of the Southeastern Electric Exchange (SEE) in times of emergency. This process evolved through the SEE Mutual Assistance Committee, which, more than 10 years ago, developed a joint mobilization process for responding to member utility requests during emergencies.

This joint mobilization conference call system proved to be a powerful method, one that has been continually improved by SEE members. For example, in addition to meeting the initial need for service restoration crews, member utilities recognized the need to provide customer care:

  • Getting accurate information to customers quickly

  • Answering questions regarding the estimated time of restoration

  • Obtaining the locations of necessary services

  • Many other timely requests.

Customers want to speak with a live person, not just receive automated messages, especially in an extended power outage.

A Recognized Need

Many member utilities, especially those with extensive coastal service territories, are frequently impacted by weather emergencies. These utilities often use their own company personnel, volunteering from other departments, to staff the phones during crisis situations. However, customer service personnel need to be highly skilled to understand customer needs and provide appropriate and accurate information. They require special training in how to calm callers during times of high stress, worry and frustration. They also need to be trained to handle technical concerns such as downed lines, blown transformers and accidents.

In the fall of 2006, customer service representatives (CSRs) from Florida Power & Light (FPL) approached Jim Collins, executive director of SEE, about developing a system of shared CSRs during major outages using the joint mobilization model designed by the association's Mutual Assistance Committee. While FPL recognized the need for shared CSRs because of its experience with major hurricanes, it understood other member utilities could use customer service help during major outages caused by ice, flooding or other disasters.

Collins quickly put the wheels in motion among member utilities through the SEE Customer Service & Billing section. A key group of customer service managers from member utilities frequently afflicted by storms met in early 2007 to assess their requirements and research options for a plan that would provide services in times of need. Customer service managers from Allegheny Energy, Duke Energy, Entergy, FPL, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Progress Energy Florida, SCANA and Tampa Electric met with SEE leadership to begin identifying and developing a viable solution.

Getting to Work

The team explored several technologies and systems to address the need for shared, well-trained, capable customer service professionals. They initially developed and put into place a system of traveling CSRs — agents willing to travel to a utility requesting help. This aid is currently available to SEE member utilities. However, the team soon realized that CSR personnel traveling to another utility's call center was only part of the solution, as distances could be far, travel could be difficult and the number of required CSRs could be extensive. There were many other logistical concerns, including the feasibility and cost of housing traveling CSR personnel by the requesting utility and the condition of the infrastructure of a call center immediately following a storm.

An additional challenge was that every call center has its own operational guidelines and scripts representatives must follow. Security was also a concern as CSRs need access to firewall-protected company databases in order to provide the most accurate and helpful information to callers. Those databases are supported by a variety of proprietary software, including SAP, Oracle and others.

In the team's effort to conquer the time and distance challenges of supplying support, the virtual call center idea was born. Enter Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC), a technology-based communications company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. TFCC provides services to more than 80 utilities, and more than half of those are able to connect directly to each other's customer databases, which was a head start in developing SEE's virtual call center system. Many SEE member utilities already used TFCC services to handle overflow customer service calls. Using this platform, which was already in place, the core committee worked with TFCC to develop a system that would meet the following criteria:

  • Provide quick response by responding utilities

  • Eliminate the need for CSRs to physically travel to another utility's location

  • Eliminate the travel costs associated with such aid

  • Incorporate the use of existing technologies to reduce the cost of development and testing

  • Provide a system that is easy to use and quick to learn with standard screens for all CSRs

  • Provide a live agent to interact with the caller, most important to the customer.

The technical advantage of this system is the ability to work through the various communications carriers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and others) used by member utilities. The switching and interface of the calls is invisible to the CSR. The technology is able to work behind the scenes with multiple carriers simultaneously and seamlessly.

The Implementation

The real key to the success of the system from the telephone representative's point of view is the development of a new standardized input screen for all participating utilities. The screen looks the same when a CSR from Georgia Power, for example, accesses the customer information system of Pepco, Tampa Electric or any other participating utility. Familiarity of information was no longer an issue once the new screens came online, thus eliminating the need for additional training with company-specific software. This is a major time saver for all the participating utilities.

Any SEE member utility may sign up for MARS and participate with other member utilities as a requester, responder or both. Currently, American Electric Power, Tampa Electric, and Pepco Holdings Inc. subsidiaries Pepco, Delmarva Power and Atlantic City Electric have signed on as full participants, able to receive and send assistance. Entergy and Southern Company have signed on as responders, willing to provide assistance to other utilities when requested.

SEE member utilities are ready to support customer needs when the next major storm or emergency hits. They are now better able to provide world-class customer care when the power goes out. The technology, the process and the people are in place.

MARS is the true essence of mutual assistance, greatly enhancing the ability of utilities to help each other by directly helping each other's customers. One thing learned during this decade, amid the many destructive weather events, is that just about any community anywhere could be in need at any given time. But with qualified CSRs across the country making efficient use of leveraged technologies, utilities are able to assist each other more effectively than ever.

First Deployment of MARS

The Mutual Assistance Routing System (MARS) had its first official deployment during the “storms of the century” that hit the mid-Atlantic region of the United States in early February 2010. This was the first opportunity to go live with MARS. Pepco Holdings Inc. (PHI) call centers in the Pepco, Atlantic City Electric and Delmarva regions needed help. There were many outages, creating an unusually high volume of calls, and many of the PHI personnel were not physically able to travel to their own call centers.

PHI initiated the MARS system for the very first time the evening of Monday, Feb. 8. Tampa Electric provided 15 customer service representatives (CSRs) during the evening hours to field calls from the Pepco service area. On the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 10, Tampa Electric, Alabama Power and Georgia Power provided the support of 45 CSRs to all three of PHI's service areas. The CSR volunteers at the remote call centers were pleased with the ability to serve another utility. The customers were grateful to have a live person at the end of the line offering information and support.

The system worked exceptionally well. Twenty First Century Communications technicians were available the entire time to resolve any technical problems that emerged. There were very few problems, and all of the utility participants and Twenty First Century Communications personnel were very pleased with the results.

Susan Prather Morgan ([email protected]) has been assistant director of Southeastern Electric Exchange since 1990. She is responsible for continuing education/training programs of the association and management of many of SEE's working groups and annual conference. Prior to joining SEE, she was director of continuing education at Kennesaw State University and program development specialist/grant writer at Georgia State University. She holds a Med degree in curriculum development and a BBA degree in management.

Barb Powers ([email protected]) is the director of Customer Service for Tampa Electric and has led process improvement projects for various departments including meter reading and field services. As the director of customer service for both TECO Peoples Gas and Tampa Electric, her duties include supervising customer service business systems and corporate credit, bad debt, billing and payments.

Al Osterling ([email protected]), senior project manager of Customer Care Core Systems, has more than 35 years of direct customer service experience specific to the electric utility industry. Osterling is currently working on the Call Center Business Intelligence Initiative designed to automate and distribute call center reporting matrix and service level results. By automating the reporting system, PHI's Resource Management team will have the ability to perform added analysis and coaching of CSR performance.

Companies Mentioned in this Article



Southeastern Electric Exchange

Twenty First Century Communications

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