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Pepco: Staying Connected by Dumping Customer Calls

When the remnants of Hurricane Isabel swept through the Washington area in September 2003, popular outrage against the power company's failure to be honest and straightforward with power-less customers boiled over. Obviously, Pepco couldn't control the forces of nature; the outages were inevitable. But the least the power company could do was to let folks know how far down the list they might be, and maybe give some rough estimate of how many days it would take to restore the juice.

Yet Pepco suffered a devastating loss of public confidence because the company persistently refused to give out any information or issued bland assurances that everything possible was being done to fix things up. "We cannot give firm estimated power restoration times," a Pepco spokesman told me back then. "We are assessing the overall system. No specific areas have been targeted."

Lots of reports and investigations and political speeches later, Pepco promised to improve its information systems, to let people know where they stand, even if the news is bad.

Flash forward to flash flooding, June 2006: I had thought Pepco had really improved its methods. I was wrong. Our power went out tonight and when I called Pepco, I got a useless recording about how there are lots of outages. At the conclusion of the recording, I was transferred automatically to a machine that asked me a series of questions about what aspect of billing I wanted help with. This turned out to be a voicemail jail that no amount of button punching could crack. I tried again, only to find in the second call that pressing buttons related to outages referred me to a second phone number, supposedly dedicated to outages.

But calling that number led to precisely the same recording about how there's bad weather around and some folks don't have power. Gee, thanks. This time, it was possible to punch through to a machine that would supposedly record our outage. But that process ended with an automated dumping of the call--and never was there even an option to speak to a human being, to find out anything about the repair schedule, or to inquire as to whether our outage was even registered in Pepco's system.

Pepco seems to have little interest in providing information to its customers. The regulatory agencies that hammered away at this issue for years appear to have accomplished nothing.

How's your power company handling this crush of outages?

POSTSCRIPT (8 AM): You're not going to believe this, but it's true. At 2:18 a.m., well after the power had gone back on, Pepco delighted my household by phoning us to announce their success. "This is Pepco calling to see if your power is restored," the woman on the other end said after I frantically grabbed for the phone--after all, at 2:18 a.m., the only reason anyone could be calling is a death in the family. I managed to grumble some form of confirmation that the power was on, and that was that. Is there another industry on the globe that includes calling customers at 2:18 a.m. in its service manual? Exactly what harm would there have been in waiting til 9?

By Marc Fisher |  June 26, 2006; 9:36 PM ET
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No fury of nature should ever come between Americans and their absolute right to immediate resolution of what ever problem is before them.

Posted by: TJ | June 27, 2006 6:56 AM

it seems like a resonable request to at least know how far down your neighborhood is on the fixing list. that way people can plan to go stay with family or friends or get a hotel room if they want instead of putting it off b/c "it can't be much longer..." only to find themselves 5 days without power (a la hurricane isabel) and thinking maybe it would have been worthwhile to have packed up and gone to grandmas for the week afterall.

Posted by: j | June 27, 2006 7:53 AM

How long after your power went out did you wait to call (btw, were you typing the blog on generator-powered computer?)? You have to at least give Pepco some time to assess the situation and damage before putting in a phone call. I don't think it's unreasonable for you to have waited until morning to call. But then again, you hate animals and soccer, so clearly you're unreasonable.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | June 27, 2006 8:20 AM

I called fairly quickly after the power died, and I did so because that's what the printed material from Pepco advises doing. The company says it wants to be informed immediately if the power goes out, because some people just assume that their neighbors will have called, and then the utility doesn't know exactly where the outages might be.

Posted by: Fisher | June 27, 2006 8:24 AM

Complaint #1: There is no communication.
Complaint #2: They communicated too quickly when the problem was resolved

Problem: Marc lives entirely in a pre-Copernican universe where he gets to arbitrarly change the rules in order to suit his every whim.

Posted by: Kevin | June 27, 2006 8:33 AM

Had your power NOT been restored, would you prefer that they wait until morning to do anything about it? Maybe tell them that so next time they won't bother.

Posted by: Vienna | June 27, 2006 8:52 AM

Boy - they are really slamming you Mark. I heard a Pepco Rep on the radio just the other day say that they WANT people to call as soon as the power is out so they know the extent of the outage. So why don't they have it set up that way? Should be simple - name, address and phone number (and have someone who actually listens to the messages).
And as for calling at 2am - years ago my car was stolen. The police called me at 3am to tell me they found it.

Posted by: KB Silver Spring | June 27, 2006 9:01 AM

Thanks goodness I don't have Pepco. Our power company is Dominion Virginia. I called to report our power outage Sunday night. It's an automated system, but they registered my phone number, asked for a second call-back number, informed me that the power was out due to a main circuit breaker problems, and gave me an estimated recovery time. The power was back within an hour of their estimate. Their follow-up call was at 6 am. This is the experience I've had each time the power has gone off. Too bad not every company can get it right.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | June 27, 2006 9:13 AM

We lost power in Bethesda at 8PM on Sunday, June 25. Called Pepco immediately -- no information on time provided. Called on Monday, June 26 at 6 AM -- said it would be up by 6 PM that day. Called back, and then said 3PM. Tuesday June 27 -- still no power. They have absolutely no idea what they are doing. House is flooding because of their incompetence -- no power, means no sump pump. Marc Fisher appears to be one of the lucky ones.

Posted by: Bethesda | June 27, 2006 9:34 AM

Wow. 2.18am - Who thought that was a good idea?

It's hard to believe given the Spring of Discontent with BGE, but Pepco could learn something from them in this area.

I called BGE on Sunday within 15 minutes of my power going out to report it, punched in my phone number, and was told (via automated operator) that: 1. A crew is on the way. 2. The power should be restored by 3:30pm. And it was!!

This is what you are asking for Marc, right?

Posted by: Bill | June 27, 2006 9:45 AM

You obviously have never attempted to get Verizon to respond to an outage.
You obviously are somewhat spoiled in your outlook on life in general.
Did you major in whining in J-School?

Posted by: George | June 27, 2006 9:51 AM

Bill's got it right.
For a moment there, I thought folks were cool with the idea of the 2:18 a.m courtesy call. I mean, I keep late hours, but that did seem a bit excessive.

Posted by: Fisher | June 27, 2006 9:53 AM

Gotta love Marc's ability to pick the silver lining out of the cloud. A plurality of people motivated to comment disagree with him. He fails to respond until the one person who supports his position chimes in. He then breathes a sigh of relief and affirms that he is as always the final arbitrer of all that is right. Now that someone explicitly supports his position the world can go on spinning.

Posted by: Kevin | June 27, 2006 10:00 AM

I agree with Mark, but my experience was a little better.

I called that recording last night. At least I got an estimate of when power would be restored. 6 a.m. It went back on about 5 or so. Nobody called me at 5 a.m. to tell me -- I discovered it was restored when I woke up because the lights went back on and the refrigerator started humming.

Posted by: Glenmont | June 27, 2006 10:07 AM

Read the letter in today's Post about the Metro snafu.

By this time, it should be obvious that - at least in this town - you are on your own.

If a little early summer rain causes these sort of problems, what do you think a major terrorist action would do?

Posted by: Robert Richardson | June 27, 2006 10:46 AM

My power went out on Sunday night, so I just went to bed. At some point during the night, it came back on. Then I left the house the next morning and went to work. I have no idea if Virginia Power has good or bad customer service because I never bothered to call. I don't really need power while I'm sleeping anyways.

If y'all hate Marc's point of view so much, why do you keep reading his blog? Just skip it, and then I don't have to read ten entries self-righteously telling him how self-righteous he is. Thank you.

Posted by: OD | June 27, 2006 11:00 AM

My power went off at exactly 12 midnight. By the time I called, it was ten after, and the recording told me that someone else in my building had beaten me to it (probably the poor guy downstairs still doing laundry in our flooded basement).

It went back on at 7 this morning. I DO miss BGE!

Does Mr. Fisher not know that you have to opt into the phone call to alert you that your power has gone back on? I don't want someone calling me at 2, either, even if it's good news. At that time of night, my first thought is "who's dead?" since the days of drunk-dialing are few 'n' far between now. Besides, I was concentrating on sleeping with no air conditioning in an apartment that is already famously "hot as the Dickens".

Posted by: Maritza | June 27, 2006 11:02 AM

My experience with Dominion was similar to that of Alexandria's. In fact it's worked that way the last couple of times the power has gone out, and both times it was restored several hours before the estimated fix time.

Posted by: Arlington | June 27, 2006 11:15 AM

Pepco raised rates, and we still get that type of service? What a crock.

I was lucky in that I didn't lose power this week, and only briefly did (for an hour or so) during Isabel. But the sheer incompetence and excuse-making of Pepco is unbelieveable. The posters here bashing Marc should try to live with that type of power service for a while, complete with lack of hot water and having to go out to eat all the time while food spoils in the refrigerator.

Posted by: MHK919 | June 27, 2006 11:40 AM

Mark stop the whining please! I check out your blogs from time to time. Most of the entries I have read that involve you and some kind of service provider ends with you being unsatisfied.

So what would change if you could of spoke to a real person rather than a recording? Real people are capable of pulling excuses out of the air at anytime. (I do it all the time) At least the robot person will not BS around with you, it will get straight to the point. Isn't that what you want anyway?

If you still unsatisfied you could just give up everything, and live on the streets. Life would be kind of rough, but at least you wouldn't have to deal with pepco.

Posted by: J | June 27, 2006 11:42 AM

After reading these customer non-service horror stories about Pepco, Verizon, and the much-reviled Comcast, should we elect a former utility executive as mayor? I don't think so.

Posted by: Meridian | June 27, 2006 11:53 AM

"guy downstairs still doing laundry in our flooded basement"

Sounds about as safe as my obsessive neighbor who had to mow grass yesterday during the rain. With an electric mower!

Posted by: WB | June 27, 2006 12:27 PM

Luckily, we didn't loose power for long this time around. However, in past outages, we've had communications problems with Pepco. Both during the ice storm in the 90s and Isabel, we were without power for over 5 days and Pepco kept stringing us along telling us our power would be on soon. After Isabel, Pepco didn't believe we had an outage because our neighborhood had power, but of course, we were the only house on the block without power. It took Pepco over 5 days to believe us when we said we didn't have power and to figure out why we didn't have power. So I'm with Marc on this one. We're not expecting instant power, just a little communication so we're not in the dark.

Posted by: Silver Spring | June 27, 2006 12:54 PM

You think pepco is bad, how about Verizon? My home phone lines were knocked in one of the early thunder/rain barrages, just after midnight last Friday morning. So I called and ask for repair help and Verizon said the earliest they could deal with it is Thursday! Six days to check on a phone outage? I told them that even notiously slow to respond cable TV firms do better than that. That little dig made me feel better, not that it will get me a repairman before Thursday.

Posted by: kb | June 27, 2006 1:01 PM

Pepco is under the impression that even if you do not have power, you will be able to access their website - in which you are to determine by color shading how badly the neighborhoods are impacted.

Isabel (2003) did not teach the company any lessons. Regardless of the numbers of people who flooded then, the company did not gear up. Here we are 2006 and the same scenario is taking place. The original writer shared that he received a great call to let him know the power is back on. I wonder how many people have received that call after their basement and/or main level has been flooded?!

We're supposed to look forward to paying larger rates in the near future to have unreliable service in electricity. The sad part of things is that even if one looks for alternative sources of electricity - the solar panels would have flown off due to the high winds. We would have to install auto-tripped generators with some sort of natural or petrolium gas. The downside is that most development HOA are not supportive of such measures since these can also be sources of fires.

Posted by: Eve | June 27, 2006 1:24 PM

In the past, I've worked for a power company. You seem to be laboring under the assumption that there's a master plan that indicates exactly which neighborhood will be worked on at a given time, and how long it will take to fix. That's not the way things work.
After a massive storm, there is no feedback about *what* the particular problem in an area is. Did a pole-mounted transformer blow? Did the pole fall? Did the wires get snagged? Did a regional substation have a fault in the transmission or distribution lines? Or is it a telemetry and control problem?
Until a crew actually gets there for an eyeball look, there's no way of knowing what's gone wrong. The line crews often work on targets of opportunity, fixing the small problems as they go while they call in support from HQ for larger problems.

Posted by: John | June 27, 2006 1:32 PM

Pepco rates go up and service goes down. In all honesty what were you expecting to happen? You're at the mercy of Mother Nature and the utility companies.

Posted by: KP | June 27, 2006 1:37 PM

C'mon Mark, you're being inconsistent. You complain that Pepco doesn't communicate with you about the status of restoring power outages, and then when they make a personal call to report that your power is back on you complain that the call wasn't made at a convenient time for you. You can't have it both ways -- personally I would be thrilled to receive a call reporting good news any time of the day or night.

Posted by: mike | June 27, 2006 1:45 PM

Marc - My power went out as well last night. I did have a much easier experience dealing with PEPCO than you did. I attribute that to:

1) Calling the correct PEPCO phone number to report outages.
2) Not choosing the OPTION to be contacted as soon as power is restored.

If you are capable of properly using the telephone, you can inform pepco of your outage, learn if they are aware of the situation or not, and receive an estimate of when the power will be restored - all within 2 minutes.

Posted by: Paul B | June 27, 2006 2:05 PM

Perhaps Paul B, who has apparently figured out what the rest of us have not, could tell us what the correct number is and how to exercise the notification option.

Posted by: Meridian | June 27, 2006 2:20 PM

I'm with Marc on the 2:18 a.m. call. That's inexcusable.

As for not being able to find out how long his power would be out, sure it would be nice to have that information. But do we really want to pay the higher rates necessary for Pepco to invest in a phone and computer system robust enough to handle thousands of calls at once and provide location-specific information to each one? If your power is going to be out for 12 hours, is your life really that much different if you're told how long it will be off versus if you're not told?

Besides, this complaint brings Marc close to the stereotypically storm-phobic Washingtonian that Marc usually mocks. "There's a storm arriving! I don't have enough milk and bread, and I don't know how long my lights will be out!"

Posted by: Tom T. | June 27, 2006 2:30 PM

Here you go... The outage line for PEPCO is 877-737-2662. You need to know the telephone phone number associated with your account and must be able to confirm your street number. Once you finish notifying PEPCO of your outage you are given the choice if you'd like to be contacted by telephone once your power is restored.

Posted by: Paul B | June 27, 2006 2:30 PM

Jeez, you people are nuts. Who in the hell enjoys key-punching their way through badly designed, useless automated menus!? Who actually thinks 2:18 am customer service calls are a good idea!?

It's like there's a certain segment of the population who worships Business, and refuse to believe It can do any wrong.

Here's a tip: being pro-business doesn't mean you have to bend over and let the guy in the pin-stripe suit have his way with you. If some of you weirdos have low self-esteem and find sick satisfaction in being screwed by the Monopoly Man, get some therapy...but for the sake of your fellow man, please don't encourage bad corporate behavior simply because you worship Mr. Man. The rest of us who don't share your fetish just want some decent service for our hard-earned money.

Posted by: O-M | June 27, 2006 2:31 PM

Amen, O-M.

Posted by: h3 | June 27, 2006 2:54 PM

O-M raises a point I have never been able to reconcile: the little person who acts as an apologist for large, unresponsive entities.

Now I understand economies of scale, etc. I know that having Comcast provide my cable, internet and phone service makes sense and I enjoy it. But I wonder why it can't be more responsive, and more logical in its responses, to me ("the customer is always right"). And when it fails to reach basic standards for operations, I would like to criticize it and have it respond appropriately. I realize that individuals out there are crazy, and I don't expect corporations to respond to them (although they should still be dealt with politely).

The crux of my bewilderment, though, is those of you out there who settle for crappy customer service, who seem to revel in it. Hooray for Marc for making a stink about this, and the sleeping cable repairman. These corporations only respond to bad publicity, so hopefully this will shame them into reform. But why do you feel the need to defend huge corporations who profit at your expense by providing terrible service?

Posted by: OD | June 27, 2006 3:05 PM

My experience was somewhat better. Lights went out at night, I called from work the next day (just in case no one else in the building had bothered to call). I did reach an automated system, which tried to identify my location via my phone number. I gave it my phone number, but the system did not recognize it. It then gave me the option of either holding for a customer rep, or getting a call back. I opted for the call back, and someone from Pepco did call back within the hour, took my address and all that. When I got home Monday evening, power was back on. I live in Montgomery County, so I don't know if that's a different "branch" or department of Pepco than the DC part of Pepco. I can't recall the number I dialed to reach Pepco, otherwise I'd post it here. I do agree, though -- a 2 a.m. call to check if your power is on is slightly insane. Also, in a day and age when many people have a home UPS with their computer, or have laptop computers -- so you can access the Internet after the power goes out -- Pepco ought to have a means via the Web for reporting outages. And finally, yes, they should be able to tell you if and when a crew is on the way.

Posted by: Steve | June 27, 2006 3:22 PM

Our power went out twice last week in Alex. and neither time could Dominion tell me anything. And that was after tricking their phone system into letting me talk to a human being. After waiting overnight the 2nd time (7 hrs) I called and was told a "crew is on the way". AFTER 7 HRS YOU'RE JUST NOW SENDING A CREW TO LOOK AT IT?? They could not tell me what the problem was, when they expected to fix it, and a supervisor never called as promised. Later that morning, we ended up finding out what was going on from the crew down the street - removing the tree from the line. Simple answer - but apparently no one communicates at that company. After living in FL (w/ regular power outages)I know it's possible to tell a customer 1)the problem w/in an hour of the occurence 2)what is being done about it 3)expected length of outage 4)multiple updates from the company as to the status of their work. It's not hard, it just takes a company that is committed to serving their customers. And regular complaints to let them know when they're not doing it.

Posted by: MA | June 27, 2006 3:42 PM

There are always those who put you down for trying to change a situation--because by being proactive, you implicitly shame their cynical, can't-do-anything posturing. It's easier for them to shoot holes in your theory than to try to take action themselves. It's annoying but what can you do?

Marc can get on my nerves every now and then--like every columnist--but by and large I think he's cool. I loved the Comcast video story. He has a great sense of humor about all the barking dogs on his blog as well.

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

Take the vacation you appear to sorely need! I was with you all the way up to your postscript. Pepco called to verify if your service had been restored. To me that implies that they wanted to be sure the problem was fixed. So had your power NOT been restored when would you say Pepco should have called you? 9 a.m. would be just right?

Posted by: Susan | June 27, 2006 4:40 PM

What number did you call, Marc? I called the "power outage" number and got a recording that both told me that my outage had already been reported and gave me an estimate of when the power would be restored. (It was restored much earlier than they said). Then, the recording asked me whether I wanted a call when the pwoer was back on; not wanting a call at 2 a.m., I said no. What did you do wrong?

Posted by: Paul B | June 27, 2006 4:57 PM

Marc- Please don't take this the wrong way... you are a whiney douche bag.

Posted by: Jeff | June 27, 2006 7:48 PM

Marc's blogs are so entertaining! I laugh until I almost fall off my chair simply reading some of the uptight comments! Marc must wake up every morning with thoughts of how he can stir people up. Keep up the good work, Marc!!

Posted by: Relaxed | June 27, 2006 7:48 PM

WP Editor, Jeff's comment need to be deleted. Thanks.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 27, 2006 7:51 PM

Since 9/11, Washington has endured a hurricane, multiple security alerts and frequent reminders from government officials to prepare for disasters in which there's no power or clean water for several days.

I'm getting tired of folks -- supposedly self-reliant conservatives, especially -- who depend solely upon one utility to supply 24/7/365 power to supply critical devices such as sump pumps, dialysis machines, or home offices.

If you need the power that badly, folks, get a generator before the next disaster.

If you want a direct line to PEPCO's emergency response planners, or convenient custom-timed calls from a PEPCO professional concierge, then call your lawmakers and tell them that you demand to pay tripled utility bills for a tiered Platinum-level PEPCO service.

In fact, that would be a great idea to pass along to the folks at the 911 call centers.

"911 Express, may I have your American Express Platinum card number, please? Oh, you need a MedStar airlift? Taxpayers don't pay for that anymore. We only provide medevac with the Centurion-level service. May I ask you a few questions about your credit history?"

Posted by: Mike A | June 27, 2006 10:47 PM

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