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Texas Public Power Community Derives Unexpected Benefits From Texting

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For Georgetown, Texas, a public power community, one of the unexpected benefits of using TextPower has been the quiet.

After the city started using TextPower, the volume of people phoning in outages dropped precipitously. “You can actually hear yourself instead of the phone ringing” when you enter the control room, Kevin Vitek, control center manager for Georgetown’s utilities, said. “You can think better.”

Before Georgetown signed on with TextPower, any outage had the potential to create a bottleneck for customers trying to call in to give their information or hoping to receive information from the utility. “It was overloading the phones,” Vitek said, “especially during major storms such as winter storms.”

Since Georgetown began using TextPower in December 2021 for electric customers in April 2023 and water in August 2023, customers can text the utility if their service goes out instead of calling in and being put on hold or leaving a voice message that a utility phone operator then has to retrieve and listen to in order to log the pertinent information into the utility’s outage management system. The process is now direct and immediate.

“It cleared up those phones quite a bit,” said Vitek, and “it allows those people to actually get in without having to be on hold. It bypassed that whole situation.” He estimates that call volume is down about 70 percent since the city began using TextPower.

Georgetown currently has 34,321 electric meters and 58,846 water meters. The city of about 74,000 people 30 miles north of Austin expanded the territory of its water department many times over in 2014 when it acquired the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District in 2014.

Before acquiring Chisholm Trail, Georgetown served about 22,500 water accounts in a 70-square mile service area. Chisholm Trail served 7,633 water accounts in a 377-square mile service area spanning three counties.

The acquisition facilitated development in Chisholm Trail’s territory, resulting in a large number of new connections which, in turn, resulted in faster and higher outage call volumes. Since 2014, Georgetown has added over 30,000 new meters, both water and electric, to its overall service area.

From the start, Georgetown decided to set up its TextPower service using two numbers, one for electric customers, the other for water customers.

The city runs its water and electric operations from the same control room. That puts a strain on the operators, Vitek says, because there is not a 24 hour call center. “We are the call center after hours. So, we’re operating and taking calls directly from the customer and replaying IVR outage messages, and we didn't have an efficient way to screen high volume IVR messages. Electric customers  merely text “OUT” during electric outages which then populates our Milsoft OMS predictor." If they have details, they are asked to call in to report the details.

Customers can then receive outage updates specific to their account by texting “STATUS." This will make them aware if crews have been dispatched and the estimated restoration time. TextPower has helped a lot in reducing the manual workload of message playback, he said.

In addition, TextPower also enabled Georgetown to separate out the billing side and properly allocate cost between water and electric accounts. “We didn't know where this was going to in the future, so we wanted to split those costs so that everybody's paying their fair share between the water department or the electric department,” Vitek said.

TextPower has also helped Georgetown address another issue. On the water side, the city does not have an outage management system. “It is a lot of manual activity,” Vitek said, adding that since absorbing Chisholm, which was about 90 percent rural, the city has quite a few more water outages than electric. “On the water side, everything is tied together; it’s an open system,” Vitek explained. So, when a leak occurs, it has to be isolated and that could lead to an outage for a whole neighborhood.

When a leak does occur, a crew is dispatched and assesses the situation. The utility then isolates the affected line segment and creates a message group that is built from the utility’s Geographic Information System map of the system and sends the outage notification to the affected area via TextPower. After the leak is repaired, the utility sends another text message telling the affected customers that their service has been restored.

“TextPower has allowed us to quickly push outage notifications to affected areas,” Vitek said. “It also allows us to send text messages systemwide if needed, for instance, notices to boil water or alerts for planned and emergency electric/water outages.”

TextPower has also enabled the utility to quickly send group text messages to its work crews. That, in fact, is how Georgetown’s electric and water crews get notified of all outages, trouble calls, and Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition alarms, Vitek said.

TextPower has also enabled Georgetown to streamline its internal outage response process. Before TextPower, workers fielding outage notifications wrote emails that would be converted to a text message that would be sent to another department in the utility, such as a repair crew. The email app, however, was chopping up the messages and often jumbling the timelines, creating confusion. TextPower has alleviated that.

“We just use the actual phone number now instead of everything else, and it gets out a lot quicker and the groups are easier to manage that way,” Vitek said.

In addition to converting the utility’s page-out groups to TextPower, Georgetown has begun to expand its use of the service to capture more of its potential such as sending push notifications for major events.

Texting is well suited to that task. Industry data shows that many people routinely ignore phone calls, especially from unknown sources, but “less than two percent of text messages are spam, so customers are less likely to ignore them,” Mark Nielsen, executive chairman and co-founder of TextPower, said. “On the other hand, 98 percent of text messages are opened and 95 percent are read within three minutes.”

Other platforms, such as Facebook or X (formerly Twitter), would appear to offer customer contact similar to texting, but only 20 percent of emails are opened or read, 9 percent of Facebook messages elicit customer engagement, and 4 percent of a single X message are read, Nielsen said.

That level of customer engagement makes texting attractive to Georgetown’s utilities. “We're currently getting messages together to where we would actually do push notifications for major events,” Vitek said.

As a first step, Georgetown just created two messages for its phone banks. “We want to keep messages uniform between operators in terms of what goes out,” Vitek said. The first message would be a text letting customers know the utility is aware of their outage and it is working on it.

The second is a message for customers who get disconnected for non-payment. “By pushing that message out, we don’t have to get tied up on the phone explaining how a customer can pay their bill or why they were cut off. It takes that time and gives it back to the operator to operate,” Vitek said.

TextPower has also been beneficial for customers, Vitek said, “by allowing our electric customers a way to quickly send and receive outage notifications. We do not have a call center after hours and this has drastically cut down the outage phone traffic and voicemail into our Control Center allowing System Controllers to maintain system awareness.”

The utility’s employees are also benefiting. “Our crews do not have the issues of receiving our page-outs versus our original email-to-text notification used in the past,” said Vitek. Overall, he said, “TextPower has allowed both small and large benefits whether it's day-to-day operations with customers and crews or one-off push notifications to customers once a year.”

For more information about TextPower, visit the company’s website.

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