Not that long ago, “mobile technology” at an electric utility meant little more than the ability to dispatch work to field crews – a server in a data center communicating to a rugged terminal in a bucket truck. Now, in essentially the blink of an eye, mobile capabilities are seemingly constrained solely by the limits of our imagination. With so many possible paths to take, what approach should a utility adopt? Here is how Pepco Holdings, Inc. (“PHI,” NYSE: POM) thought about the problem and how we delivered solutions to our customers and to our employees who serve them.
"Through a PHI mobile application that can be downloaded for free, a customer can report an outage and check on its status including the estimated time of restoration"
PHI looked first to deliver value to our customers. We focused on the times our customers need us most: during emergency response when extensive restoration activities are underway.
Customers have not one but two imperatives for PHI during restorations: get the power back on as safely and quickly as possible (as always) and keep them informed of our progress and how it affects them. This puts us not just in the power delivery business but in the information delivery business as well. And that’s where our mobile technology efforts began: keeping customers better informed during a power outage.
Through a PHI mobile application that can be downloaded for free, a customer can report an outage and check on its status including the estimated time of restoration. They can also use interactive outage maps from their smart device that cover the entire service territory. Customer adoption of these technologies has been rapid. The mobile application is one of PHI’s fastest growing channels for outage orders, growing from 1 percent during Hurricane Irene in 2011 to 10-15 percent during more recent major events. While the mobile application was downloaded around 6,000 times during Irene in 2011, it was downloaded 106,000 times during Hurricane Sandy one year later. Today, nearly 300,000 of our customers have the application.
Although PHI’s customers use our mobile application most frequently during a restoration effort, it can help them manage their energy usage 365 days a year. In early 2014, we extended many of our My Account website capabilities to our mobile application. Some of the new mobile app features include news and alerts, links to social media, energy savings tips, and the ability to view current/past bills as well as daily energy use for the past seven days.
While there were a lot of variables at play, overall customer satisfaction at PHI increased by 13 points over a four year period, 28 points in our Pepco service territory alone. Within the survey details, “Being Customer Focused” and “Keeping You Informed During an Outage” were key drivers of this improvement.
While our initial efforts in harnessing mobile capabilities were customer-focused, we soon followed with internal services to help our employees do things “better, faster, and cheaper.” Ultimately, this results in benefits for our customers, as well, even if these benefits are not as directly visible to them.
As we did with the customer-facing capabilities, we moved quickly by focusing on a limited number of opportunities that generated the greatest benefit:
•Help our employees do things now versus later. This involves ways to help them get out of the office and into the field – and once they are in the field, help them stay there.
•Help our employees do things more efficiently. Rather than spend a lot of time and a lot of money on process documentation in a search for inefficiencies, we opted for a shortcut. We simply look for paper and “mobilize” it.
•Help our employees do new things. While the two items above are about improving existing processes, mobile technology can create new processes altogether by enabling new information flows.
We know that supervisor presence in the field is a key driver of safety. Administrative duties can keep these supervisors at their desk, so we decided to enable them to perform those tasks in the field. With that in mind, the first capability we rolled out was time approval. The app was so well-received that our users now default to the tablet version even when they are at their workstation. We followed with time entry, invoice approval, and requisition approval.
While these capabilities allow our employees to get out of the office and into the field, we delivered other capabilities to help them stay in the field. They are now able to view crew locations, access equipment information, submit inspection reports, and even receive training and attend meetings. When in the field, they can be even more efficient by not having to rely as much on paper. Checklists, manuals, forms, and job packets can now go wherever the employee goes.
These activities have to do with improving existing processes. Utilities, however, can use tablet and smart phone capability to establish new processes entirely through the creation of new sources and types of information. Some areas that immediately came to mind for PHI involved vegetation management, joint response, and damage assessment. Capabilities can even be extended to mutual assistance crews from neighboring utilities during emergency response efforts, resulting in power being restored even more quickly.
Regardless of the areas a utility chooses to focus on, I would offer the following as important principles to follow. PHI adopted the following and they have served us well:
•Design for security. There are many ways to share information and unleash capabilities. Some of these approaches can result in vulnerabilities while others leverage security best practices. The mobile development team needs to work very closely with IT infrastructure to make certain that a stable, secure, and scalable platform is underlying all efforts.
•Lead from alongside. One of the greatest assets to PHI in our mobile capability development has been early adopters and strong advocates within Operations. IT listened to what the field group needed and rolled out solutions to meet those identified needs. Doing so enabled us to put capabilities into their hands quickly – capabilities that they would actually use – as opposed to a slow rollout of a large, centrally designed system that ends up as “shelfware.”
•Think broadly. IT is working not just with Field Operations, but also Environmental, Engineering, Construction Management, and Emergency Preparedness, to name just a few areas within the company.
Regardless of one’s function within a utility, everyone’s job is reliably and effectively serving the customer. Mobile technology built on a secure foundation can help utilities do that even better tomorrow than we are doing it today.