You Want to Talk to Pepco? Press 1 and Hold for the Machine

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 29, 2006

When you run a power company, you are, as Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin tells me pretty much every time we speak, "damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Three years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, the utility was roundly criticized for having failed to trim trees that hang over power lines. So Pepco put more resources into tree-trimming. Result: All manner of wailing from homeowners appalled to see their beloved greenery getting aggressive haircuts.

What also riled Pepco's customers after Isabel was the company's inability to provide useful information about how long outages might last and when repair crews might arrive. All people wanted was some sense of how far down the list they might be. Pepco insisted that was not possible. But regulators leaned on the company, and eventually it came up with a new information system.

This week, tens of thousands of customers have had their first chance to use the new system. What we've discovered is that in the guise of improving the flow of information, Pepco has eliminated the human beings.

When my power went out Tuesday night, I called Pepco, waited through a recording that helpfully notified me that we were experiencing some bad weather and found myself transferred to a machine that asked me questions about billing. My second call referred me to another number: Pepco's new, automated outages line.

That number provided me with yet another opportunity to hear the recording about how it was raining outside, but this time, I could let Pepco know about my outage by punching a bunch of numbers. That process ended with an automated dumping of the call. There was never even an option to speak to a human being, as I had in the past, when Pepco operators were able to tell me how far off a crew might be and how extensive our outage was -- key facts that would help a customer.

The new phone system can handle 100,000 calls an hour, "virtually eliminating the possibility of a busy signal," and without a single operator taking calls, the system can "provide the same information that a call center would," says Al Osterling, project manager for Pepco's customer care systems.

In my case, that was no information at all. But mine was a relatively short outage. In longer outages, Pepco's machine does sometimes offer a recorded estimate of how long it might be before the juice is restored.

Obviously, the new system saves a ton of money. And Pepco argues that it's the only way to field all the calls that pour in during a major weather event. Dobkin says it's impractical to hire enough people to provide personal estimates of restoration times to everyone hit by a major storm. "This is serving customers through automation," he says. "For us, it's much more efficient to do it this way."

Pepco executives concede that what customers want during an outage is someone who can give them a sense of where they stand -- and that people may turn a deaf ear to a recording.

There is some good news here: Pepco does still have some human beings working the phones. At 2:18 a.m., six hours after the power had gone back on in my neighborhood, Pepco delighted my household by phoning 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 to see who had died.

Now that was customer service! Actually, Osterling assures me, his automated system is programmed not to call customers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but living, breathing Pepco dispatchers do make calls throughout the night to make sure that repairs have really solved the problem.

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