ANALYSIS: New Haven Startup Could Solve Communication Problems for Utilities

by | Sep 2, 2011 8:49pm
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Connecticut-based SeeClickFix.com might just have a pre-packaged solution to CL&P’s communication woes. The question is whether the corporate culture of Connecticut’s utility monopolies could accept a more transparent system of handling customer issues.

There is little question that internal communication channels within both major electric utilities have failed. The reason for this appears to be that their customer service departments do not have access to information used by line crews to report progress on repairs. Further, it appears as though customer service personnel are unable to effectively supply line crews with information from customers. So while data exists in both the internal- and customer-facing sides of the company, it is completely incompatible. 

Social media platforms haven’t been helpful either, because the utility companies have put their marketing departments in charge social media accounts. The result? A one-way communication stream that is tailored to the mass media and broad audiences with hundreds of customer complaints piling up unanswered on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

Enter SeeClickFix.com.

The New Haven-based Internet startup developed a free reporting platform that helps solve the age-old problem of facilitating effective communication between residents and government on the status of things like pothole repair, graffiti, and other non-emergency problems.  With a little bit of initiative from the utility companies, SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz says the system could be up and running quickly for their customers.

SeeClickFix.com Photo

SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz

“All it would take is maybe an hour of set-up time to get them in a place where they could enable citizens to report via the web or mobile applications,” Berkowitz said.

Based on Google Maps, SeeClickFix’s platform is simple and already has gone a long way toward improving communication and response time for municipal issues. The reason? Citizen complaints and the local government’s response to them are both posted publicly.

Here’s how it works:

1.  Residents can file reports from their cellphone or home computer and include photos and even exact GPS coordinates of problems.

2.  The submission is then plotted on a city map that any member of the public can track from their cellphone or web browser. Neighbors can file their own complaint or choose to add their voice to an existing one.

3.  When the complaint is reviewed on the municipal side, a notification is sent to everyone with an interest in the issue to acknowledge that the government had received it.

4.  The municipality can seek more information, add an update, or report the issue as resolved. As with the acknowledgement, all parties are instantly notified when information is updated. All of these changes are also updated on the map in realtime.

5.  Should a resident not be satisfied with an outcome, the issue can be instantly reopened for further review.

In the case of CL&P, this tool can provide the means to connect customer service to the linesmen and vice versa. Tickets can be updated using smart phones, laptops, or tablets that are already in the field. Additionally, the updates transmit directly to the customer - freeing up customer service agents to take calls on emergency situations like downed wires, or provide the SeeClickFix information to those without Internet access.

“All of the issues are publicly documented. If you reported the power is out, all of your neighbors will see it as well. If it’s been resolved everyone can see it,” Berkowitz said.

The system can also be used by customer service agents and field representatives to assist those customers unable to make online updates. The company representative can enter the ticket themselves and assign the customer’s telephone number to it. The system has the ability to call customers automatically with updates. Similarly, online maps could be made available kiosk-style at relief shelters to provide updates to those without phone or Internet.

Read how New Haven residents are using SeeClickFix in Irene’s aftermath

But the most important part of the SeeClickFix solution is that it reduces friction in delivering information within the company and out to customers. Everybody — customers, managers, linesmen — get the same information at the same time. Berkowitz says that often it is the information on the problem, not the resolution, that people seek most.

“Fixing the issue is kind of secondary, most people just really want good communication especially when a public resource is being denied to them for whatever reason,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz had the SeeClickFix team build a complete electric utility reporting application Thursday morning. However, the site is designed to allow customers to notify utility companies of problems themselves simply by creating a watch area and assigning a company email address to receive automated notifications.  Of course the question is whether or not the utilities will pay attention to it.

The move to a public trouble map might be hard for a company not accustomed to operating transparently. Berkowitz says companies like CL&P and UI need to come to the realization that most organizations are discovering: their actions are public regardless of what they choose to communicate.

“You can either let the public assume what they will about you based on your actions, or you can augment your actions with good communication that’s public,” Berkowitz said. “When your power goes out, obviously the utility company can’t hide that from you but they can tell you what they’re doing about it.”

And for the thousands of people trying to get local information on power outages, the company giving up a little bit of its privacy will go a long way toward improving its relationship with its customers.

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