Growing up in a small town in northeast Georgia, Mickey Brown had no idea he would one day become an executive vice president of the state’s largest utility and oversee its customer service reorganisation – re-emphasising customer commitment and re-establishing a small-town presence – while dealing with rising fuel, operation and maintenance costs and battling the worst hurricane season ever.
STORM OF THE CENTURY
After almost 40 years with Georgia Power, Brown says last year may have been the most challenging. With an unprecedented 15 hurricanes hitting the Southeast during hurricane season, Southern Company, a company that prides itself on storm restoration, was hit with the worst storm in the company’s history when atrina came ashore on August 29.
The storm hit sister companies in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida hardest, with tornadoes spawned by the storm’s outer bands tearing through parts of Georgia. Outages in Southern Company’s territory totalled 1.2 million, with 100 percent of Mississippi Power’s customers without power. Other challenges Mississippi Power faced included:
• 92 percent of its transmission system inoperable
• 1,000 miles of wire and 8,900 poles down
• 2,400 transformers damaged
• 185 load-serving substations inoperable, and
• 70 percent of the company’s facilities with significant damage.
Georgia Power, which sustained the least damage, quickly sprang into action, bringing in tankers and fuel from throughout the country and setting up and managing 12 major tent cities and staging areas for 11,000 storm workers. Since Mississippi Power’s operating facilities had suffered extensive damage, Georgia Power employees in Atlanta fielded customer calls and handled media requests while other employees were despatched to manage Mississippi Power’s overall operations – including the procurement of materials and equipment, engineering, supervision of storm teams and contractors, right-of-way clearing and security. Within 12 days, service was restored to 100 percent of Mississippi Power’s customers who could take service.
Georgia Power was warmly commended for its restoration efforts in the wake of that storm, and Brown credits the size of its parent, Southern Company, for helping to make things run smoothly.
“What Southern Company accomplished is pretty remarkable. Mississippi Power is a small company and, had it not been part of Southern Company, it could not have done the things it accomplished in the aftermath of that storm,” he said. “The companies were unselfish and every employee chipped in to help.
It also helped that Georgia Power employees have considerable experience with storm restoration, built around best practices and post-storm reviews covering what worked and what could have been done better, Brown said.
“We know what we’re doing when it comes to storm restoration,” he said. “We have a strategic plan for working a storm and restoring service, and we make safety a top priority during storm restoration.”
The company is also great at remaining focused at home – making sure any power outages there are taken care of and that “our own customers continue to receive good customer service,” throughout, Brown added.
During the storm restoration, the company continued to emphasise its Target Zero philosophy – Every Day, Every Job, Safely – a focus that continued when crews headed home, Brown said.
“Safety is one of our core values. That has never changed and never will. We want to continue to improve this year and make sure working safely, and returning home every day to families, is a top priority of our employees.”
THE BEST OF THE BEST
Despite hurricane season, Georgia Power linemen did attend last year’s International Lineman’s Rodeo in Kansas City. The decision was made at the last minute and many of the linemen who competed said they were “exhausted” after working around the clock to restore power after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or making sure the lights stayed on back home in Georgia.
The added distractions took nothing away from the competition, netting Georgia Power first place in the event and capping the most award wins in the history of the competition. “Last year was different for a couple of reasons,” Brown said. “First, right up until the last minute we didn’t know if we were going to compete because of Hurricane Katrina.
“Once we did make the decision to go, we didn’t have time to concentrate or practise like we normally would,” Brown added. “Our performance this year speaks highly of the skill level and talents of our people."
Georgia Power won first place overall, top investor-owned utility team, top senior journeyman team, top overall apprentice and top investor-owned utility apprentice, along with a handful of individual and team awards.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
With the re-emphasis on customer service, Brown’s organisation is constantly researching ways to do things better, faster and easier for the customer. Restructuring the customer service organisation included moving some officer positions out of Atlanta and establishing others in cities around the state.
“Georgia Power is focused on meeting the needs of the customer,” he said. “Our
strategy is founded on high customer satisfaction results. In fact, one of the reasons for the customer service organisation’s restructuring last year was to combine all the facets of our business that have a real connection with the customer, from generation to end use, and have them under one umbrella.
“The changes reflected our commitment to customer service, community involvement and economic development and our goals to enhance efficiency and consistency.”
Other innovative approaches the organisation has introduced to improve customer service include:
• FlatBill – Customers are offered a fixed electricity price for an entire billing period (with a year-long contract) regardless of costs and usage changes.
• Automated Meter Reading – This effort has been expanded to meet the needs of a growing customer base and reduce company costs. The focus this year is upgrading processes for meter reading and service order information flow, including the interfaces with Georgia Power’s customer service system.
• Virtual Call Centre – The VCC uses advanced call routing to direct calls through the company’s call centre equipment to local offices. The VCC allows Georgia Power to meet service level commitments, provides call handling assistance to the Customer Care Centre during peak periods and provides added resources during power outages.
• Speech-enabled Voice Response Unit – The benefits of this unit include keeping call wait times low; maintaining high customer satisfaction; meeting increased call volume and increasing call efficiency while helping to control costs.
BANG FOR THE BUCK
Keeping costs low while providing quality customer service is a hallmark of Georgia Power and will continue to be for years to come, although the endeavour doesn’t come without its challenges, Brown said. With fuel prices on the rise, the company has become even more committed to educating its customers on energy efficiency, including working with the Georgia Public Service Commission to develop and launch anenergy efficiency customer education campaign with the theme “Save Money and Energy”.
Georgia Power offers its customers free in-home energy audits and offers residential customers an online audit to identify ways to become more energy efficient. The company also posts energy efficiency tips on its web site. Other energy efficiency initiatives include:
• Energy Star – Through Southern Company, Georgia Power has partnered with this government programme dedicated to helping customers save money through energy efficient tips and the purchase of appliances backed by Energy Star.
• Green Energy – In the second half of the year, customers will be able to purchase green energy in 100-kilowatt-hour blocks, with a year-long commitment.
• Innovative DR Tariff Options – Commercial and industrial customers can select rate alternatives designed to lower overall energy demand during peak demand times. Options include real-time pricing, time of use, daily energy credit and demand plus energy credit.
• Power Credit – Georgia Power pays customers a specified amount for having equipment installed on their air conditioners that allows the company to cycle off the units for about 20 minutes out of every 30 minutes of run time during peak periods. Some 20,000 customers are currently enrolled.
With another active hurricane season already predicted for 2006, as well as increasing fuel and operation and maintenance costs, this year promises to be one of the most challenging yet for Georgia Power and the utility industry, Brown said.
“We aren’t in control of fuel prices, so we are facing additional pressure to curb our operation and maintenance costs. We will be paying more attention to how we are spending money in every other area to compensate for rising fuel costs.”
Completion of a merger that will marry sister company Savannah Electric with Georgia Power is also expected to pose something of a challenge, but should benefit customers statewide in the long run, according to Brown.
The merger, which is expected to be completed by July, is an effort to reduce costs and enhance the future economic wellbeing of Savannah Electric’s coastal service territory. “We are constantly focused on customer value and the merger is just another way we hope to enhance that,” Brown said. “We want to refocus on the basics, which is making sure we are listening to customers and doing what they ask us to do, when they ask us to do it."