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PSE&G: A Public Utility's Failure to Inform the Public

John Federico

It's been nearly four days that I, and a number of my neighbors, have been without power due to this year's early snow storm.

While the storm was unexpected, the results were not: the snow was dense and heavy and the abundance of leaves still on the trees made it easy for snow to find purchase on weak limbs which fell onto power lines. Given that I live in a town called Maplewood, you can imagine how many old, large trees we have in town and that extent of the damage is probably higher than other towns.

Needless to say, it's got me a bit torqued out. Finally, this morning, I had to get on a plane to go to Blogworld LA, leaving my wife and son home without electricity and a wood stove that neither of them are comfortable operating.

But what's really got me pissed off is our utility company, PSE&G.

Cleaning up after this storm is a big job - I get it. What I don't get is the company's inability to grasp the simple concept of keeping their customers informed.

With the power out, most people are likely to use cell phones and mobile phones to get information about repairs. With this in mind, PSE&G turned to Twitter to keep us updated.

"That's great!", you say. "What a forward thinking company!", you say.

Not so fast.

As we know, it's all about the execution and their approach to using social media leaves much to be desired.

Tweets look like this:

Sure, the tweets provide a brief update on progress, but not much in the way of detail.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt since they only have 140 characters to work with and they include a link for more information.

This is where communication really starts to break down.

First, they don't offer a version optimized for mobile devices. FAIL.

Then, the "Repair Updates" read like stream of continuous press releases. Here's an example:

PSE&G fall storm update: Oct. 31, 2011 at 4:30 p.m.

-- PSE&G is making steady progress restoring service to the more than half million customers affected by Saturday’s storm.  At this time, about 150,000 are without power.

-- Crews continue to work around the clock to restore service.

-- The company expects to meet the state’s goal of having at least 95 percent of its customers restored by Thursday.

-- Counties most affected include Bergen, Essex and Passaic due to the extensive amount of tree and power line damage.

-- PSE&G has 237 crews and 212 tree crews working around the clock to restore power.  In addition to its own crews, the utility has arranged for 60 crews from utilities in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, to assist in the restoration effort as well as 119 line contractor crews.

-- Electric crews work to restore power to the largest numbers of customers first, taking into account “priority” customers, such as hospitals, police stations, fire stations, water and sewer facilities, communications facilities (TV, radio, and telephone), and customers on life-sustaining medical equipment.  At the same time, the utility restores power to homes and businesses, starting with the circuits serving the largest number of customers.

...

What does this say?

  • The storm was really bad.
  • The damage was really bad.
  • Look - even our Governor said it was worse than the last storm!
  • We have people working on it.
  • We perform repairs of critical infrastructure first.
  • We perform repairs based on the greatest number of affected people first.
  • We should have 95% of affected customers returned to normal service by Wednesday evening.

Here's the problem: it doesn't tell me anything about my situation. It is a complete failure of communication and managing customer expectations in the information age.

Now, before you start with the name-calling and protestations of my self-centeredness, remember this:

We live in an era when I can track a FedEx package from a cell phone; an era when I can order a pizza with a text message.

Heck, I tracked the progress of my Mini Cooper being built from the moment it was ordered, started and ended production in the factory, was shipped overseas and delivered to my dealer for pickup!

Why can't PSE&G tell me where I sit in the queue of repairs? It would help ease customer anxiety and help us make critical decisions.

Do I need to find shelter for my family? Should we stay with friends? Go to a hotel?

Should I plan to throw out all the food in my fridge today? Should I double-up on batteries?

Am I going to be one of the 95% that has power on Wednesday night? If I'm in the 5%, how much longer will I have to wait?

This should be simple. Why isn't it?

The repair schedule doesn't have to be exact, just give me a window. (You know, like the cable guy gives me: "Somewhere between 8 AM and 5 PM."

How about a web page (and corresponding mobile version) that looks like this:

--------

Repair Schedule for Today

(Note: This schedule will likely change due to complications and will be updated throughout the day.)

Critical Infrastructure

County, Town - Hospital

County, Town - Hospital

County, Town - Airport

Residential

County, Town - 25,000 people

County, Town - 20,000 people

County, Town - 18,000 people

County, Town - 15,000 people

Repair Schedule for Tomorrow

County, Town - 15,000 people

County, Town - 12,000 people

-------

You get the idea.

This way, I see what's in the queue for the day (or coming days) and I have a general idea what to expect and how to respond.

Instead, we get messages that seem to be mostly targeted to the municipalities and utility regulators. Sure, those folks enable the energy companies to do business in our state, but we're still the customers.

Why not treat us that way?

Hello, PSE&G?