How Utilities Can Control the Uncontrollable in Field Service

Francesco Benvenuto
September 15, 2023

Do you know what matters most to your customers?

A recent McKinsey survey, which included responses from 20,000 residential utility customers across North America, put it bluntly: optimizing customer journeys and satisfaction.

The data points overwhelmingly toward a positive trend; customers are generally satisfied with their utility providers. But utilities do have an Achilles heel that’s impossible to ignore, and that’s the unplanned outage experience.

What about unplanned outages creates friction? Well, for starters, they’re unplanned—their unpredictability throws any semblance of preparation and a “normal” customer experience out the window.

Major power outages according to climate central

Of course, utilities have taken good care to control the things they can during unplanned outages. (Think: implementing self-healing grids and ensuring easy access to online portals for real time updates). However, roughly 50% of an unplanned outage experience lies beyond a utility’s realm of control. It’s a shot in the dark to predict when and how long outages occur. In order to boost their customer experience ratings, utilities need to learn how to wrangle those volatile variables.

Gaining more control during unpredictable outages is made possible with a robust outage management system.

By leveraging Next-Gen Field Service Management Technology and tapping into mutual aid resources, utilities can boost their CSAT scores and ultimately provide customers with better outage experiences.

Here’s how:

Redefining Preventative Maintenance Strategies For A Stronger Outage Management System

In the context of field service management, predictive maintenance has traditionally encompassed sending crews out to the field to monitor assets. Maintenance workers examine the health of their assets and make recommendations based on their observations.

How Utilities can control the uncontrollable in Field Service

We’ve outlined a different approach—one that emphasizes proactive technologies for deeper performance insights. This new approach redefines predictive maintenance and consists of four key considerations. Let’s dive in.

1. Identify your high-risk assets and develop a replacement plan

Predictive maintenance begins with identifying the high-value assets most liable to fail. These assets typically have a lower health status and can significantly impact the reliability and performance of the utility. By recognizing these high-risk assets, utilities can prioritize their maintenance efforts and develop a proactive approach to address potential issues before they contribute to unplanned outages.

If a particular cable line has experienced multiple outages, for example, it’s probably time to consider replacing that segment of the line. Traditionally, utilities would send a maintenance worker to examine the line and schedule a time to fix it. But by integrating IoT sensors and devices into their predictive maintenance strategy, utilities are able to gather real-time data on parameters like voltage readings, temperature, and operational conditions, empowering proactive maintenance actions by identifying anomalies or early signs of potential failures. Predictive IoT technology allows utilities to determine when, where, and how to replace the asset before it fails.

Once it’s determined which assets require maintenance, a crew will be sent to the field. With a digital field management system, utilities have a clear picture of every maintenance request in a particular area. That means they can bundle their work orders, optimize the use of field resources, and group crews together to tackle multiple orders to enhance productivity and reduce downtime. Additionally, by planning ahead and coordinating with the supply chain, utilities can ensure that necessary parts are available to the crew on-site.

2. Think prescriptive, not just predictive

It should be noted that predictive maintenance is only one piece of the puzzle. Utilities should leverage prescriptive maintenance to chart the best course of action for maintenance and repairs.

While preventive maintenance focuses on regularly-scheduled maintenance activities to prevent equipment failures, prescriptive maintenance takes a more data-driven, proactive approach. Prescriptive maintenance utilizes advanced analytics, machine learning, and predictive modeling techniques to analyze real-time data from various sources.

The goal of prescriptive maintenance is to provide specific recommendations and actionable insights to maintenance teams. Instead of relying on generic schedules or rules, prescriptive maintenance tailors maintenance activities based on the actual condition of the equipment. It can enhance accurate job duration predictions, automatic crew suggestions, and spare parts suggestions, for example, to drive the most effective and efficient maintenance actions.

3. Don’t underestimate the power of a single pane of glass

Field workers know that switching between apps is a productivity killer. In fact, constantly bouncing between screens wastes around 59 minutes per day. That’s why interfacing on a single pane of glass is paramount to streamlining your predictive maintenance strategy and bolstering efficiency.

When we say “single pane of glass,” we’re referring to providing unified visibility into all the information required to complete a maintenance job. There’s no reason to make a field worker switch between apps to access data like customer information, scheduling plans, and equipment requirements. Productivity skyrockets when mission-critical data can be easily accessed on a single screen.

Single pane of glass Field Service Management solution

Arguably the most important component of a single pane of glass is an interactive GIS capability. Field technicians need a clear picture of where they are in relation to their assets. Not only that, but dynamic, interactive GIS systems enable things like network tracing, upstream analysis, redlining, and other critical capabilities without ever needing to switch to a new screen.

4. Lean into grid modernization tools

Grid modernization initiatives—like oxygen analyzers, IoT devices, and digital twins—have revolutionized the availability of real-time data for utilities. This abundance of data presents a significant opportunity for field technicians.

Armed with deeper data insights, technicians can make better decisions, perform their jobs more safely and efficiently, and ultimately reduce the duration of outages. From a customer experience standpoint, this translates to a better grasp of the estimated time for restoration (ETR). Customers can access this information through online portals during unplanned outages and stay in the loop in real time. Resolving outages quickly is crucial, and effectively communicating the ETR to customers plays a vital role in managing their expectations and overall satisfaction.

Leveraging Tech-Empowered Mutual Aid During Unplanned Outages

Technology is certainly a key catalyst for enhancing unplanned outage experiences, including when it comes to mutual aid. Whether it’s contractors or internal crews from neighboring districts, you’ll need their support — but you have to ensure they’re prepared to handle the task at hand.

With a field service management platform, utility companies are capable of automatically building and scheduling crews, even in situations like a last-minute sick call. This streamlines scheduling processes and ensures compliance. Moreover, a field service management platform gets crews quickly up to speed when working with unfamiliar tools and assets. Pre-recorded videos that walk them through basic field tasks, such as recalibration or self-service assistance, reduce the need for field crews to contact the dispatch center for expert guidance.

Even if mutual aid crews do require in-person assistance, they can initiate a quick, virtual call (similar to FaceTime) to connect with subject matter experts from the back office. The session can be recorded, annotated, and stored on the work order record, enabling easy access for future reference or training purposes. Leveraging speech and image recognition technology further enhances collaboration by automatically clipping relevant sections of the recorded session.

Unplanned outages happen. There’s no silver bullet solution to prevent them altogether. But being prepared with the right outage management system will help utilities provide stronger services and keep customers satisfied.

Reach out to us to learn how we can help you manage unplanned outages, enhance customer satisfaction, and drive operational excellence across the board.

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