50 Businesses, 50 Solutions: Electric utility switches to remote call center

  • Unitil provides electric and gas services to more than 100,000 Granite Staters. The company’s Concord customer service call center has gone fully remote because of the pandemic. —Michelle DeBakey 2010

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/28/2020 8:54:18 AM

When the power goes out for customers of Unitil, a small utility that services about 75,000 electric customers and 30,000 natural gas customers in New Hampshire, customer service calls are usually routed to a Concord call center with about 35 employees.

Nowadays, if you call Unitil, you’ll get a unique message, warning you that the customer service team has switched to remote work, and asking for your patience with any unexpected background noise.

“Please note you may hear background noise such as other family members or pets as our team member assists you,” the recording says.

Customers have been extremely understanding of the switch, says Alec O’Meara, Unitil’s media relations manager.

“We heard from a couple customers who were disappointed that they didn’t hear a dog or a kid,” said O’Meara, who has also been working from home with his children.

Unitil, which is headquartered in Hampton, has about 500 employees in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. Many of them — including all of the call center service members — have been working remotely since March. That will continue for the foreseeable future, although the company hasn’t made any permanent decisions about remote work, O’Meara said.

Unitil is an essential business, so it has never shut down during the pandemic. However, it has made major adjustments to how business is done. O’Meara’s last day in the office was March 13 — also the last day of school for many students in the state. By the time Gov. Chris Sununu issued the stay-at-home order on March 26, Unitil had switched the entire call center to remote work, which was done in just one week. Most of the employees at the corporate headquarters are also working remotely.

The utility was able to respond so quickly in part because leadership had been monitoring the coronavirus situation since early January, preparing for various responses. In addition, the company was already switching some call-center workers to remote work, so that they would be able to respond faster for increased calls during off-hours emergencies, like a middle-of-the-night storm that knocks out power to thousands. As part of that switch, the company started using RingCentral, a cloud-based communications system that O’Meara said made the switch to remote work easy.

The transition was tested a few weeks later, when a wind storm just after Easter downed trees and powerlines throughout Unitil’s service area.

“That was the first test of the call center and emergency response, and we were able to keep both working,” O’Meara said. “We had a very busy day but we had the resources in place to respond.”

Some services can’t be done remotely. Unitil still has dispatchers and crews working in person, but the company has taken steps to minimize their risk of exposure — and ensure the company can keep business as usual if someone is exposed. Dispatch is now run out of two locations, so that if someone is exposed to the coronavirus or gets sick it wouldn’t affect the whole department.

“We want to keep the workforce as separated as possible,” O’Meara said.

With many school systems in New Hampshire not sure of plans for the 2020-2021 school year, Unitil is working with employees who are trying to juggle their careers and families.

“There are challenges for families with small kids and children in school,” O’Meara said. “HR has been really trying to be as flexible as possible with those folks, understanding it’s a unique situation. We are all just sort of experiencing work-life balance differently right now.”

This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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