On December 14th, the Seattle area was hit by a major wind storm that left over a million people without power. My family was among that million, and we had five days without power, phone, cable or Internet access. While city and state services worked to manage the aftermath and restore power, the media made frequent comparisons with the inaugural day storm in January of 1993.
I was left pondering the changes in communications technologies since 1993, and the areas in which the power companies hadn’t yet kept up.
When you have a toddler, no light and no heat, having some idea of when they’re likely to return is important information. Without it you’re living hour to hour, unable to make good planning decisions.
Throughout the outage, we had three main sources of information. An often-busy telephone hotline, the media, and word-of-mouth. The telephone hotline had detailed information, but was busy so much of the time it was largely unusable. The media had only very general and sensationalized information. Word-of-mouth was unreliable, with different stories depending on who you spoke with.
Noticeable to me was the lack of information from modern communications media. The power company’s Web site contained little more than a press release. As far as I can make out, e-mail went completely unused. I don’t think they’d even heard of RSS define. An NPR discussion focused on the fact that most people without power also had no Internet access. Yet I don’t see that as a valid reason for not using those channels. We made use of friends, family, and work, as well as mobile phones to get access to e-mail and the Web. I’m sure many others did too.
Given that detailed information existed on the likely length of outages in various neighborhoods it’s a crying shame it was so hard to access. If that information had been available online or via e-mail, countless hours of frustration listening to a busy signal, continuous questions from the toddler about the darkness, and sitting in a cold house wondering when the power might return could have been avoided.
The technologies and infrastructure we use for dynamic, targeted marketing campaigns on the Web, in e-mail, through SMS and RSS, are exactly those the power companies needed to provide subscribers with detailed updates on when their power was likely to return.
Recently, Al DiGuido has been writing about how customer relationships are the intersection of marketing and customer service. To me this is a clear case where, with a little planning, they could have worked together for substantial customer benefit but apparently failed to. So my question to you is: how ready is the marketing department to assist your organization in the event of a disaster, and does the rest of the organization know it?
Wishing you disaster-free holidays.
Until next time,
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