Customer Service Lessons from Sandy

I hope all affected by superstorm Sandy are faring well.  Like many in our area, we have been without power for four days and, as of this writing, it is unclear when we will have power restored (more about this later).  This has given our family an appreciation for everyday things we take for granted, such as lights, refrigeration and heat.  Even after a few days, we were still expecting lights to go on when we instinctively hit the switch!

The storm and its aftermath gave companies and organizations a chance to demonstrate their customer-service chops.  Some did, while others missed the mark.  Even before the full brunt of the storm hit on Monday, I received emails from financial-services companies offering to waive late fees and to extend credit for those affected.  Some reiterated these offers in the following days when the full extent of the devastation became known.  I am not sure how many customers exercised these options, but I assume not having to worry about these issues when facing a tree on your roof, flooding in your basement, damage to your home or (worst of all) no house at all, was comforting to many.  Lesson learned: Offering something that costs very little can generate tremendous goodwill and loyalty.

Our local power company, PECO, has the herculean task of resorting electricity to the 11,000 homes (out of 13,000 total) in our town that lost power, as well as to tens of thousands of other homes in our area.  I applaud the company’s preparation (bring in teams from around the country), fast response and the incredible time employees have been working to get service back to normal.  My one complaint has been the company’s updates on when service is expected to be restored.  I know this can change as the company learns more about the task it faces, but the expected date for restoring our service has been pushed back three times totaling more than 2.5 days.  So at this point we have little faith in the estimates.  Customer service is all about expectations and when you change the expectations multiple times (for the worse), you destroy customer confidence. 

Some customers might find comfort in an estimated date, even if it keeps shifting.  They can live with another day delay, but might not be able to handle “we don’t know” or “5 to 7 days”.  I would prefer the unvarnished truth so I can deal with the situation.   My sister lives in a rural part of New Jersey and her utility company told her right at the beginning that power would be out for 7 to 10 days.  So if the company restores power earlier, it will exceed expectations.   Lesson learned: When you really don’t know, say “we don’t know”. 

Our local state senator (Steve Santarsiero) has done a nice job of informing his constituents of the situation via his Facebook page.  People reposted his updates, so there was a good chance that, if you were on Facebook, you would have seen his posts.  These gave residents an idea of the severity of the damage beyond their neighborhoods and the progress being made in restoring power.  The updates also tempered any expectations that things would return to normal in a few days.   Lesson learned: In a time of crisis, real information is the most valuable currency. 

A number of towns in our area postponed Halloween because of the situation and set a new day for trick-or-treating.  Our town decided that Halloween would proceed on October 31for those who wanted to participate and that there would be an alternate date (Saturday, November 3) for those who wanted to participate on that date.  This did nothing but create confusion.  Better the town had just postponed Halloween to a new date.  Lesson learned: In a time of uncertainty, create as much certainty as possible for your customers.

Great customer service during a time of crisis is usually the result of forethought and preparation.  Those companies and organizations that shine in these situations have planned well beforehand and execute flawlessly when the crises hits.


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