Improving Performance: Lessons from the ice storm

Have you ever wanted to really upset your customers? Have you ever wondered how to make sure they feel unimportant? If you have customers, who actually feel entitled to some level of service, you might want to try this to set them straight — of course, you have to be a utility or some other sort of monopoly to avoid an immediate and severe loss of customers.

On Thursday, Dec. 11, southern New Hampshire — indeed much of New England — experienced a severe ice storm. Like many New Hampshirites, we lost power. I knew it was a severe storm and it might take a while to figure it out, so I didn’t even bother them on Friday.

Saturday morning I tried calling the power company and got a recording that said they knew about the problem, were taking emergency calls only, and that the emergency personnel had no information about when anyone’s power would be restored. They suggested calling back on Monday.

It was 24 degrees outside when I made that call. Wait until Monday? These guys can sponsor a lot of Little League teams and public services events and never regain the goodwill they lost with that weekend recording.

That message is what my neighbors and so many others complained about. I don’t think any of us expected an immediate fix, considering the widespread devastation. All we wanted was some idea of when we might expect power again. If it was a few days, many would tough it out and try to stay as warm as possible. If it would be longer, should we try to drain the pipes and find someplace else until power is restored?

Perhaps information was broadcast on TV. People without power and/or cable aren’t likely to hear it. As I tuned the radio dial, many local stations were off the air. The newspaper had some information, when it was finally delivered, but no real answers.

Surprisingly, we seldom lose phone service during storms, although we frequently lose power (I wonder if there’s something the power company can learn from the phone company?). So the phones may be the best way to communicate.

We finally got power back late Sunday night (yes, we feel lucky; many others were without much longer!).

I spoke with the crew, and they were working 16-hour shifts with eight hours off. I doubt anyone could ask more of them than that, especially in such frigid weather. So the repair people may have been putting in heroic efforts, but customers were still upset about the “wait until Monday” message.

Don’t alienate customers

Now, somebody has to be coordinating such a massive repair effort, and chances are, they are using computers. That makes it easy to make the latest information available to people in call centers staffed by people who can give us some idea when we can expect power again in our particular neighborhoods.

Power companies already understand how to share resources in emergencies. None of them can afford to have such massive repair services on hand; they come from other power companies to help those in need.

Why not do the same thing with a virtual emergency call center? With the miracle of technology, calls can be answered by people at other power companies as long as everyone is using the same type of software. They don’t even have to travel, as the repair crews do. And yes, they should work weekends when people are without power and it’s only 24 degrees.

Additionally, they might want to explain their prioritization for restoring power. Who gets it first and why? No doubt, the layout of the grid is a factor. How do they decide on industrial vs. residential? Freezing people are not always reasonable, but helping them understand what is happening and why can gain their support.

If we think of national security, we’re paralyzed without power. There has to be a way to communicate with people who are without power.

What about your company? Are your people contributing heroic efforts, but a seemingly unimportant detail is alienating your customers? I doubt anyone wants to make customers feel unimportant, but could you be doing so inadvertently?

Communicating with your customers when they need it most can be one of the most important things you can do. If power companies were as easy to change as our favorite restaurants, there’d be some big changes in southern New Hampshire.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; fax 603-894-6539;;