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Pepco Responds: Who Needs Humans?

This morning's post about Pepco's response to calls when the power goes out has sparked a debate about just what we ought to expect from a utility that's dealing with a zesty, long-lasting storm that, at last count, had caused outages for more than 31,000 customers.

I've spent some time today talking with some of the Pepco executives who helped design and operate the company's new phone response system and here's what they have to say:

Customers, regulators and Pepco bosses alike agree that the way the company responded to Hurricane Isabel a couple of years ago was not good. Thousands of people had trouble reaching the utility and many people lived for days without power and without any notion of when they might expect their neighborhood to be restored to the grid.

So Pepco came up with a new system, one that is fully automated. So when I complained earlier today that I couldn't figure out how to bypass the automated system and get to a real person--I wanted to speak to a human because in past outages, that was how I did find out how far a repair crew was from my neighborhood and when it might be expected to get to work on our outage--I was barking up the wrong tree. There is no human to reach.

"The system is fully automated," said Al Osterling, project manager for Pepco's customer care systems. The new phone system can handle 100,000 calls an hour, "virtually eliminating the possibility of a busy signal."

There are no humans to talk to because "the system is designed to give you the same information that a call center would."

In my case, that was no information at all. But mine was a relatively short outage. Had the outage continued, I could have called back and gotten a recording that might have given me an estimated time for restoration of juice.

Obviously, the new system saves a ton of money. But Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin says it's impractical to expect that you could hire enough people to provide personal estimates of restoration times to all the folks who are affected in a major storm. "There's no way you can staff up to handle all those calls," he said. "This is serving customers through automation. For us, it's much more efficient to do it this way."

The downside, of course, is that the recorded message has to be very broad, because it's going out to every caller in the region.

Pepco's customer advocate, Donna Mann, says that even if I had reached a live person last night, "they wouldn't have been able to give you any additional information." But if my outage had lasted longer, the old Pepco operators indeed could have told me whether there was a crew around and when it might show up. The Pepco folks say their machines can do the same thing--you plug in your phone or account number, and it can deliver recorded messages about estimated repair times.

But that information comes much more readily on what Pepco calls "blue sky days," and much less readily when the heavens are pounding us mercilessly, as they are this week.

Finally, about that 2:18 a.m. courtesy call I got from a Pepco human being, checking in to see if my power was indeed restored and if I was a happy camper: Osterling reports that his automated system is programmed not to call customers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. But Pepco dispatchers do make calls throughout the night to make sure that the repairs reported in by work crews have really solved the problem.

"Not everybody gets called in the middle of the night," Osterling assured me. I was just specially selected, at random. "You drew the winning ticket. The dispatcher was making sure that the information she received from the crew was accurate and it was ok to declare service back to normal." Ok, but 2:18 a.m. was six hours after our neighborhood's outage was resolved.

One last point: Several readers wondered why I was calling Pepco at all--wouldn't it be best to just shut up and let them do their jobs? No, the Pepco folks say: They want every last person who loses power to call them. That's the only way they can see the pattern of the outage. My particular outage hit 750 homes, and Pepco only received calls from 50 of us. They had to extrapolate from those calls exactly what the boundaries of the outage were. They want you to call. And now you know you won't be bothering anybody, because there's nobody there to be bothered. The machine loves the company.

The number, by the way, is 877-PEPCO-62. I report it here because it isn't in the phone book (three other numbers are, and two of those are disconnected.) I mentioned this to the Pepco folks and they said they know. "We're taking measures now to change our phone listings," Mann said.

Good luck tonight--hope you don't need this info.

By Marc Fisher |  June 27, 2006; 3:05 PM ET
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Good luck tonight to you too, Marc. The weather service is calling for another storm, 3 to 4 inches of rain, and for some areas, 8 inches. I guess you better head off to Walmart for more towels.

Posted by: WB | June 27, 2006 4:07 PM

I HATE the "fully automated" systems. They rarely have the info I want - they rarely if ever anticipate my questions. The worst of the worst are the systems where you are supposed to speak to the computer, which responds with something like, "OK. I think you asked for your current balance. Is that correct?" NO! NO, it's not correct! It never is! I desperately push "0" in those situations, and sometimes reach a live person through doing so, but often the computer system just keeps saying, "I'm sorry. I didn't understand your response. For billing questions, say, 'Billing.'"

Posted by: K | June 28, 2006 9:22 AM

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