Twenty First Century Communications and a consortium of utility companies have developed a new system to help utilities respond more quickly to customers who lose power.
The collaboration addresses one of the biggest problems facing utilities after a disaster -- responding to the influx of customer calls to report outages and get information. TFCC already provides High Volume Call Answering to most U.S. utilities, a system that takes outage calls and returns restoration information using automation.
But, as outages extend into hours and days, customer want to talk to a person. "Our customers' willingness to talk to a machine dwindles after about the first day," said Rob Cheripko, managing director of customer service for American Electric Power Co. of Columbus, Ohio.
Now, with the Mutual Assistance Routing System, or MARS (patent pending), utilities can re-route calls from people in storm-stricken areas to customer service representatives at other utilities.
Several utilities have already implemented MARS, and the program is receiving nation attention. MARS was featured in the Wall Street Journal story, Utilities Unite to Upgrade Response During Storms, on May 11.
Utilities started talking about loaning each other customer service teams in 2007, by actually flying them to the locations of utilities in need. But, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrated, there were many logistical problems, such as damaged infrastructure, impassable roads, and lack of housing. The utilities in need of help would have to pick up, feed, house and train responding customer service reps on their systems. It just wasn't cost-effective.
With MARS, none of that is a concern. TFCC has the ability to route calls across any of the telecom carriers in the U.S., so location doesn't matter. The system comes with a simple data screen and a common communications platform for all participating utilities. Minimal training is needed and representatives work from their usual stations.
"The more utilities across the U.S. that join MARS, the more powerful it becomes," said Jim Kennedy, founder and CEO of Twenty First Century Communications. "During hurricane season in the south, or an ice storm in New England, utilities from unaffected parts of the country can step up to support those in crisis."
MARS is an example of how partnership and communication between provider and clients can pay off for both parties. "MARS represents a growth opportunity for TFCC certainly," said Kennedy, "but more importantly, it provides a very cost-effective solution to a key problem for utilities."