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Posted on December 22, 2011 by West Corporation 


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Braving the Storm

by Scott Zimmerman

Seven Tips for Using Engagement Communications to Weather-Proof Your Customers

The tornado that struck Joplin, MO, this year crushed nearly a third of the city. It pounded about 2,000 buildings, including places like a fire station and hospital that exist to respond to emergencies. It knocked out power and cell phone service for many, damaged water treatment and sewage plants, and left tangled remains of cars and trucks thrown against buildings. It was the single deadliest tornado in more than half a century. Natural disasters, by definition, cause mass destruction. Hurricane Irene’s trek up the East Coast, for example, left an estimated $2-3 billion of damage in its wake. Unfortunately, 2011 has seen more than its fair share of devastation. Between the summer floods, tornados, blizzards and drought, 2011 has racked up nine natural disasters that have killed thousands of people and cost at least $1 billion each.

These statistics emphasize the importance of having communication procedures in place when disaster strikes. One of the fastest and most effective ways to keep your customers safe and informed before, during and after a disaster is through an automated notification process known as Engagement Communications. Engagement Communications gives your customers the option to receive personalized messages via voicemail, e-mail and text messaging to keep them apprised of disaster situations so they can prepare, endure and recover.

While these messages can be sent to hundreds or even thousands of people all at the same time, they can be delivered a very personal way. It’s high technology with a human touch . . . and the end result is a dramatic reduction in damages to people and property, and a safer community during times of disaster.

Here are seven tips for using Engagement Communications to weather-proof your customers:

#1 Put Your Customers on Alert

The first step you must take is to put your customers on alert – and that means implementing an Engagement Communications program and getting your customers signed up to receive alerts and notifications. It’s important that your strategy includes technology that delivers a mix of email, voicemail and text messaging alerts so you can engage and notify individual customers in whatever way they prefer to be contacted.

Once your Engagement Communications program is in place, you need to make sure your customers know how to sign up. Some utility companies simply put a check box on the application for service saying, “check here if you would like to opt-in to receive emails, voicemails or text messages from…” You might also consider putting a note on your invoices so your customers have a chance to opt-in every time they pay their bill.

#2 Prepare Emergency Messages In Advance

Although you can’t always predict when disaster will strike, you can prepare some disaster communications in advance. For example, if you’re in an area where hurricanes are prevalent, you can put a process in place to alert customers of the approaching storm. By pre-loading a list of affected customers into your Engagement Communications system, notifications can be sent out within minutes to inform, protect and assure residents.

You’ll want to spend some time talking through the various disaster scenarios to determine the types of messages you would like to send in advance to help people prepare. You’ll also want to strategize a series of messages to be sent during the disaster so your customers know what is going on and when they can expect services to be restored. Additionally, you should think about the types of messages you would like to send post-disaster.

Next, it’s a good idea to have a series of pre-recorded messages ready and waiting. This strategy enables you to communicate important messages the moment disaster strikes. The key is to “pre-load” messages that can be triggered to send at a moment’s notice when the pre-defined disaster hits, to let people know to seek shelter or evacuate the area.

However, you can’t anticipate every scenario. With that in mind, it’s important to partner with a provider that enables you to go online, record the message yourself, upload a data file and send out it within a matter of minutes so you can let your customers know what’s going on, what to expect and how to respond.

#3 Don’t Overlook The Importance Of Selecting The Right Voice To Carry Your Messages

When delivering critical communications, particularly voice messages, you need to think about the gender, age, accent and style of your voice-over talent. It’s important to match the voice carrying your messages with the tone of the situation. For example, when people are worried and dealing with disaster, an upbeat, energetic voice style may not be appropriate. You’ll want to find a voice that projects a confident, assuring and knowledgeable tone. You’ll also want to consider the language and accent used to deliver your messages. There are likely people in your customer base who don’t speak English as a first-language, so you’ll need to take that into account and, potentially, write multiple scripts in various languages, while hiring a few different voice talent professionals to match the demographics of your customers. Additionally, make sure the Engagement Communications partner you select can deliver messages in multiple languages, simultaneously, to meet the diverse needs of your customers.

#4 Put Safety First: Help Your Customers Prepare To Weather The Storm

As with all disasters, the first priority is the safety of your customers. Often, preparation is the best way to ensure safety. Therefore, you might consider creating a series of disaster preparedness messages to send to your customer base at the beginning of the storm season, as well as leading up to a disaster.

Using the hurricane example, you might remind your customers to document belongings in a home inventory and review their insurance policy to make sure they have the appropriate level of coverage. Once a hurricane has been tracked, follow-up message types could include providing instructions to shutter windows, reminders to have emergency food and water supplies on hand, instructions for creating a first-aid kit, and sharing any and all evacuation routes and procedures.

#5 Let Your Customers Know What To Expect When Disaster Strikes

When the storm hits, messages can provide directions on where to seek shelter, food or medical treatment; or provide an estimated timeline of when power will be restored – all of which will minimize damage and speed up recovery.

It’s the little things that matter most during times of crisis. For example, if you have a customer whose power is out, but his neighbor up the street has power, he’ll be wondering what’s going on and be desperate for an update. In a situation like this, an automated voice message, email or text message that conveys, “We know your power is out. We empathize with your situation. Sit tight, we’re going to take care of you,” can make all the difference when it comes to reassuring the community and letting them know the situation is under control.

#6 Continue To Provide Support After The Storm Passes

Along with disaster comes destruction. Now, you don’t have to take on the role of coordinating a large volunteer effort, but you might consider reaching out to organizations that do provide disaster relief, such as The Red Cross. When you reach out in advance, you can set up a process for helping these organizations disseminate important information in the days and months following a disaster. For example, you might be able to work with them to deliver to your customers a series of messages aimed at recruiting much needed volunteers to clean up debris or assist displaced families. This type of communication will let your customers know you care and are doing your part to help in the recovery process.

#7 Review And Revise

After you’ve been through one disaster cycle with your Engagement Communications program in place, it’s always a good idea to review your strategy. Take some time to reflect on what you did well, what could be improved, and what you might add or eliminate the next time around. Do this while things are still fresh in your mind, and revise your strategy within the next 30 days so you’re even better prepared for the next disaster.

Remember, whether its e-mail, voice mail, text messaging or social media, advances in communications technology mean your customers are reachable most anywhere and at any time. During a natural disaster, when you must act quickly and deliberately to prepare your customers for a storm, automated messages can inform, develop trust and increase customer satisfaction. In essence, by weather-proofing your customers, you give them the assurance they need to remain calm before the storm…and hopefully during and after the storm too.

Originally published in Electricity Today, December 2011


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