03 Feb In a Crisis: Don’t Leave your Customers out in the Cold
In our job we recognise the value of communication, and never more so than in a crisis. As a customer on the other side, I realised very quickly that SGN were doing an excellent job of managing communication during a challenging situation. I took the opportunity to turn it into a learning experience.
Here’s the timeline for 48 hrs of successful crisis management – as it happened:
Tuesday 1 February: 5.45pm
A message pops up on Facebook.
“Scone peeps, check your gas. Mine is all spluttery and keeps cutting out. Anyone else? Don’t leave anything on your hob unattended, I don’t think it’s safe.”
This helpful post from a friend on one of the community group pages, starts the online jungle drums of Scone village beating in earnest.
‘Mine is out too!’ ‘I’ve called the emergency number to report it.’
‘Thought my boiler was playing up!’ ‘Looks like it’s a supply fault.’
‘Six vans on site now at the bottom of the road digging up pipes.’ The updates come thick and fast.
Friends and neighbours are tagged into the conversation. Following advice from the gas emergency hotline, instructions on how to shut off the gas supply safely at the mains are shared. We are a wee village, we love a bit of drama and it isn’t long before possible causes and duration of the disruption are being debated. Is the school going to be shut tomorrow? Please, no, anything but that! We don’t have to rely on Facebook speculation for long.
The Communications Team at SGN post the first of many updates on their website www.sgn.co.uk.
Water has entered the gas network. At this point, the investigations are at an early stage, but the immediate reassurance is that engineers are on site working. There is a realistic acknowledgment that it will take time to identify the source, and therefore it is difficult to estimate how long it will take to restore the supply. The priority message is care of the elderly, sick and families with small children. For these vulnerable groups, portable heating and cooking appliances can be delivered, customers can arrange this by calling the 24-hour customer helpline number provided.
There is a promise that another update will be posted in a few hours. A link to the update is also shared via the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Good practice – This timely response establishes SGN official website as the place to go for information, enables the link to be shared widely online, and is quickly picked up by community Facebook groups, the Local Authority’s social media and the local press. The message of responsibility for the elderly and vulnerable encourages many who see it to check on their neighbours and to inform those without online access of what is happening.
Excavations of the pipework reveal that a substantial amount of water has entered the supply due to a burst water main. The volume and pressure of this water in the system has interrupted the flow of gas to over 1,300 homes. This is now a major incident.
A new website update informs residents that in order to drain the pipes safely, each of the affected properties will have to have their gas supply isolated at the meter.
By this point extra teams of SGN engineers from across Scotland have been mobilised to assist with digging at multiple sites, and visiting each property on foot to ensure the gas is safely turned off. I speak to one smiling chap drafted in from Paisley who tells me, “It’s just what we do – when you get the call, you grab your bag which is already packed with all your gear and you know you’ll be spending a couple of nights in a hotel and working around the clock until the incident is resolved.”
Wednesday 2 February: 8.30am
The Communications Team are also in emergency response mode, and first thing in the morning, letters advising residents of the incident, the streets affected and the action necessary are being hand-delivered across Scone by SGN staff teams, highly visible both in their numbers and in their fluorescent jackets. School is open, thankfully.
For some residents, this is the first realisation that there is anything amiss. One SGN team member sympathises, ‘With incidents like this, it’s a major disruption and people just want to know what’s happening. We had one woman chase down the street after us in her jamas to find out if we could fix her boiler. Not everyone has access to the internet, so it’s important to have people out in the community, answering questions and passing updates on.’
Ensuring all staff on the street are prepared for questions from the residents, as well as supplying regular updates on the incident and information for the media, is the job of SGN Communications Manager, Anne Neilson. Supported by three Communications Officers, Anne manages the whole of SGN’s operation north of the border. Usually based in Edinburgh, Anne and her team are in Scone by 8.00am on the first full day of disruption, setting up home in the temporary Incident Command Station – a section of the local family restaurant, The Wheel Inn.
The communication on Wednesday begins with the delivery of printed letters and updates for the SGN website and social media.
These continue every two hours throughout the day, with a staff photographer documenting the progression of the work throughout the village and sharing images online. There are also updates provided to the local media throughout the day and on site interviews for journalists and TV news crews to manage.
Good practice – Communications Officer Clare Buchanan records a video update for residents which is shared on social media. This direct face-to-face delivery, coupled with the large numbers of staff out on the streets talking to individuals, and the images of work in progress helps humanise the company and reinforce the message that SGN are here not just to restore the gas supply, but to support and inform the village throughout the emergency. The option to sign up for regular email updates is also promoted at this time.
A mobile Customer Service Centre is set up at the church car park to provide a central point for information, and a local distribution point for the free fan heaters and hotplates for residents. Temperatures are mild for the time of year, but as it becomes apparent that much of Scone will be without gas for a second night, families appreciate how much easier it is to pick up these items immediately when required, rather than arrange delivery via the telephone helpline.
Staff manning the Customer Service Centre are generous with their time and sympathetic when it comes to listening to the concerns of individuals, even though some staff have been on site since 8.00am. They provided up to date information and reassurance in person until 9.00pm. The 24hr customer service helpline is available overnight.
On Wednesday afternoon, it becomes necessary to install temporary traffic lights on the main Perth Road to enable staff to work safely. During the evening rush hour, these cause delays for traffic coming into Scone. Communications Officers have been monitoring and responding to comments on social media all day, and when this is raised as a concern, assurances are quickly given that the lights will be manually operated during rush hour the following morning.
Each Communication Officer signs off messages with their name, so that customers understand there’s a real person responding in real time to their questions.
The regular communication on SGN’s Facebook page is much appreciated, with comments from customers offering tangible support for the teams working on site. Residents even start to answer each other’s questions and are quick to defend the teams from those having a moan, ensuring the tone stays positive.
Wednesday evening’s update advises that engineers have identified the source of the water breach and have pumped over 10,000 litres of water from the gas supply pipes.
The Incident Command Centre is in full swing and the restaurant car park is teeming with SGN vehicles and fluorescent jackets. With The Wheel Inn unable to provide a full menu due to the gas disruption, additional food trucks are brought on site to provide a hot meal for vulnerable residents and cater for the teams working throughout the night.
Good practice – Communication throughout the first day follows a regular format: First, an honest and up to date progress report, followed by a recognition of the continued effort being made by the SGN engineers to resolve the issue. Safety messages and signposting for further assistance offer residents reassurance that SGN are looking after them. Finally, an indication of when the next update will be available – this is always delivered on time, fostering a sense of trust and reliability in the communications.
A helpful video alongside the updates on SGN’s website explains what happens when water gets in to the gas supply and what steps are necessary before the supply can be restored. SGN also continue to thank residents for their support and understanding throughout the disruption.
Thursday 3 February: 10.45am
Progress looks good on Thursday morning, after engineers work tirelessly through the night to complete the repair to the damaged main.
Despite continued effort throughout the morning to clear the pipe network, a substantial amount of additional water is discovered during a final check on Thursday afternoon. This is a challenging message for the Communications Team to deliver.
Anne Neilson explains, “The Scone residents have been fantastic so far. We’ve used many forms of communication to reach and reassure customers that we are doing our very best to resolve the issue and the response has generally been very positive. We’re almost 48hrs into the incident and are hoping that the goodwill of the residents remains with us, as despite removing over 10,000 litres of water already we’ve discovered some pockets of water still present in the network. In order to safely restore the gas supply, we need to continue to remove all of this water throughout the evening.”
While the STV news coverage chooses to focus on the afternoon’s setback, SGN continue their honest and transparent approach, and begin promoting information about compensation for loss of supply. Householders are informed that after a 24hr period, each further 24hr period without gas will qualify for a payment of £30, automatically credited to their bill by their chosen supplier.
Repairing the damage to the gas network, caused by the burst water main has obviously been an expensive operation.
SGN wisely steer clear of any discussion about costs or blame for the incident on social media. “I hope Scottish Water have a good insurance policy!” observes one commentator.
They have a point. Aside for the huge amount of extra manpower, transport, accommodation, overtime hours, equipment hire and catering, more than 900 fan heaters and 400 hotplates have been given out by the time I interview Anne on Thursday afternoon. This equipment cannot be recovered after the emergency, as to have the equipment PAT tested and certified safe for redistribution outstrips the cost of the original appliances.
The focus of the Customer Service team, and absolute priority for SGN however, is keeping customers warm and fed. In order to ensure no vulnerable resident goes without assistance, staff have called door to door throughout the village and have offered appliances to both care homes and all three sheltered housing complexes. Residents may keep these once the incident is resolved.
“SSE are concerned that folk using so many electric heaters may cause a spike in demand, what will we do then?” asks a lady collecting two fan heaters from the Customer Service van. “That’ll be all we need, a power cut at the same time!” Some things are beyond the control of SGN, however.
I thank Anne for her precious time on such a busy day. She is just sitting down to lunch at 3.00pm and I can hear her phone ringing insistently as I walk away.
Gas is back on! A cheerful team of engineers appear at my door to switch on the supply and check that my appliances fire back up safely. I rush to enjoy a hot shower and wash my hair.
Another engineer arrives to check the pressure at the mains and ensure all is well. I give him a big box of biscuits to take away and share with his team at cuppa time. Tiny, insignificant gesture. What I really want to do is give the whole of SGN a massive hug and a million cakes.
With the gas supply restored to many properties in Scone, the Communications Team post their last update of the day. Engineers will return first thing in the morning to continue to switch on supply and check appliances, and those who are going to be out are encouraged to leave a key with a neighbour for access or call the number provided to arrange a visit. Another update will be posted in the morning, and continue regularly until the incident is resolved and the team leave the site.
So, what lessons did I take away from the experience as a customer? It absolutely demonstrated that good communication is the key to successful crisis management and reinforced some useful points.
- Planning – This wasn’t the first incident of this nature that SGN had dealt with. They had a plan, and it was slick. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen in your business. Be prepared, train your staff in advance to be able to launch that instant ‘emergency response’ the moment it is required. Are your in-house skills up to the job, or could you use the help of professionals? Think about it now. You want to be able to count on that front line when it matters most.
- Early response is vital – own the situation as soon as possible, silence breeds speculation, provide the answers if you can, be HONEST if you can’t. If there are gaps in the info you have, or you are waiting for an update, let your customers know. Tell them when they will get this information and ensure you can deliver when you say you will. If you think all this may be the last thing you need to deal with in a crisis, perhaps it’s time to give us a call.
- Become the trusted voice – update info regularly, use a broad range of communication tools to reach the widest audience and offer them a variety of ways in which they can respond. Empathise with the customer. Listen. Recognise their frustrations and allow them an outlet. A helpline, an incident station, someone monitoring and responding to their concerns on social media. Show them you are human, personalise your response. Be transparent. Don’t hide behind a company name, put your face out there. Make it a friendly one.
You can’t prevent a crisis, but you CAN control how you respond to it.
Hard-hats off to Anne Neilson, her Communication Team and the SGN staff. They were informed, visible and VERY responsive, both online, in person and in the media – going the extra mile to keep residents up to date and safe, and ensuring that after this incident, everyone in the village is talking about how well it was handled.
If you would like help with planning how your business would respond in a crisis, please give Volpa a call on 01738 658187 or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org