The Utility Arborist Association's System Forester Task Force has researched and evaluated the typical practices involved in customer interface for line clearance programs and provides these Best Management Practices (BMPs) as guidelines for their peers and the utility line clearance industry.

When it comes to electric utility line clearance programs, it is important to have an established customer-interface system to avoid unnecessary customer issues. For example, an inconsistent message can confuse customers or give the wrong perception. Also, the absence of a notification program may increase customer complaints. Finally, improper training can worsen the day-to-day interactions between line clearance workers and the customer base, and may increase the number of refusals.

Therefore, it is beneficial for electric utility companies to consider the many varied ways in which they have contact with their customers. Some of these methods involve direct face-to-face contact while still others use indirect methods of contact.

The Notification Process

Utility vegetation management (UVM) programs historically have been known to have an enormous impact on customer satisfaction. UVM departments tend to be the one group within the company that has the most contact with customers. As such, it is imperative the UVM programs adopt some sort of notification program.

The notification process is an essential part of a BMP program, because it informs customers of upcoming work, gives customers an opportunity to discuss work before commencing, provides the utility an opportunity to educate customers and learn of their expectations, and gives the company a chance to seek permission where required.

A notification program allows the utility to communicate its intentions prior to the work commencing, thereby avoiding potential complaints and/or refusals. Furthermore, it leads to better customer satisfaction and can translate into higher company-satisfaction scores.

Many states have positive notification and permission requirements, which can range from a mailing — postcard or canned form letter — to a personal phone call in advance of the UVM work. Typically, at least a door card is used within a few weeks of the work commencing.

The door card will contain information regarding the process and what work will be done on the customer's property. It also may have some educational pieces of information that tell of the reasons for UVM work and why it's important to them. The card should provide utility contact information in case the customer has a question or concern about the proposed work. This card should be developed in conjunction with the utility's corporate communications group to ensure it aligns with the corporate message.

The door cards are distributed either by utility personnel or contract personnel (either a tree company or third-party preplanning company). Some companies find it more effective to have a third-party company do all prenotification so as to allow the tree contractor to focus solely on vegetation management work. Removal of incompatible tree species or brush is often prescribed and requires the written permission of the homeowner/landowner. In these cases, it can prove efficient to have a prenotification company responsible for tracking down the appropriate party and acquiring that signature.

The process of notification many times consists of face-to-face conversations with the customer or tenant. This presents a great opportunity to convey the utility's key messages in a beneficial way. Written communication lacks an essential element of effective communication: nonverbal. These direct customer contacts present an opportunity for the company to shine. The notification employee should be a skilled ambassador for the utility's UVM program.

Public Education Programs

Many best-in-class UVM departments include a well-developed public education program. These programs serve to educate customers, agencies and other groups about the reasons behind and importance of UVM work. It affords the utility the opportunity to communicate with customers in a setting that is more conducive to learning.

The prenotification process for imminent UVM work often can evoke emotional responses from customers. It is not always the best time to attempt to educate the customer about the Right Tree/Right Place concept, for example. On the other hand, if a customer has an opportunity to speak with a UVM professional at a home and garden show, for instance, the chances that the customer will be receptive to the utility's message are significantly increased. And if the experience is a positive one, then that customer can act as an unofficial ambassador by passing on that information to friends and family.

Personal targeted presentations to groups of people can be extremely effective in conveying key messages and addressing many common concerns associated with UVM work. These presentations can be given to informal neighborhood groups or at civic group luncheons or formal green-industry conferences. Presentations can include many of the same key messages contained in the door cards and other company publications, and should align with the corporate message. It is a way to reach large numbers of people in the least amount of time. Education of public utility commission staff is also a key way in which these targeted presentations can benefit the UVM program. It gives a unique opportunity for state regulators to learn about the challenges associated with vegetation management activities and can assist utilities during future rate-case proceedings.

The tree care brochure and other corporate publications can be invaluable in reaching yet another segment of the public. Most successful UVM programs have developed some type of publication, be it a tree care brochure, leaflet or bill stuffer that seeks to inform customers about the utility's program. These items provide a chance to delve into more detailed explanations of the elements of the programs. Many utilities also provide information on proper tree care, including planting, pruning and proper placement of trees in relation to power lines. These brochures may give details of certain recommended tree species that are more compatible with power line rights-of-way. These publications can be used to supplement activities such as Arbor Day celebrations and tree planting events. Other messages that may be communicated include:

  • Right Tree/Right Place
  • Options available to customers
  • Sustainability or green initiatives.

Working collaboratively with corporate communications groups ensures that the publications meet the needs of the program and company as a whole.

In order to measure the success of a program it may be necessary to collect data related to customer satisfaction. Many UVM programs use customer-satisfaction surveys to gather that data. The survey, in many cases, provides a cost/benefit analysis that can justify the different elements of the UVM program: Was your message effective? Did the tree crew perform professionally? Did you receive notification prior to the work commencing? These are just a few examples of some commonly asked question on surveys.

The Feedback Loop

Some states mandate customer surveys. The survey can be in the form of a door card left on the door after the tree crew has completed the work. These surveys typically come in a business reply format that is mailed to a central location for tabulation and for response to the customer if requested. Once this information is gathered, it shows definitively the level of success of the program and can be used in other arenas such as regulatory.

Another type of a satisfaction survey can be a phone survey. This survey involves a direct form of communication where customers are asked a series of questions relating to UVM activities. Again, the results are tabulated and can be used to cost-justify the program.

Customer focus groups are used sometimes to gain insight into the needs and concerns of certain customer groups. They can be used to benchmark performance against a goal or standard set by the company. Advantages associated with this method of feedback include a more in-depth process, the opportunity to spend a longer period of time with key stakeholders and personal one-on-one communications.

Companies that are successful in communication often incorporate feedback received from these methods back into the UVM program. Development of new processes or tweaking of existing processes can be an output from the feedback received and, in turn, can result in higher customer-satisfaction scores. Tying survey results to employee and contractor performance can serve to encourage effective communications with the customer. Feedback also can be used to recognize and reward excellent performance, and may drive some employees to strive for better results.

There are a number of stakeholders involved in UVM programs that benefit from ongoing training. Most important are the front-line UVM workers or the tree care company employees and third-party preplanners, because they have the largest amount of day-to-day contact with the utility customers. Training also increases credibility with the customer. BMPs include regular (typically annual) training of UVM contractors. It is imperative that these employees are skilled in communicating with the public. Offering effective communication training can enhance these skills. Other items that can be covered during an annual training session include proper arboriculture practices, environmental awareness and electrical hardware recognition.

Stakeholder Training

Call center employees that may field calls from the public regarding vegetation management activities also should be trained regularly on proper ways to address common concerns about the UVM program. This department can experience high turnover rates, so this training should be done on an as-needed basis. Items to be covered in this training session include basic specifications of UVM program, including the notification process, clearances and the name of company doing UVM work. This information can help to satisfy customers in a short amount of time on the phone and minimize the number of complaints that may result from inaccurate or delayed responses from the utility.

Utility executives also may require some guidance in the policies and procedures of the UVM program. As with other employees, there can be turnover at the top levels of the company, and sometimes these individuals have little firsthand knowledge about UVM activities. This necessitates that they be brought up to speed on the importance of the program and its key objectives. Keeping key persons well-versed can help to build alliances and alleviate miscommunications in the future. Other departments within the utility that can benefit from regular UVM training include legal, regulatory, environmental, supply chain, public relations, engineering, design and construction.

Although the majority of utility customers agree to proposed UVM work — or at least understand the purpose of the work — there remains a small number of individuals who can and do refuse to allow the work to continue. These few customers can consume a large portion of a utility arborist's time. Having a clear, consistent refusal process can minimize the occurrence of refusals or at least minimize the time involved in resolving these issues.

An Effective Refusal Process

An effective refusal process includes several key steps:

  • Documentation by a UVM employee

  • Research easements/right-of-way agreements for legal rights

  • Refer to tariff or other regulations for procedure, if applicable

  • Progression of UVM employees meeting with customer all using same key messages

  • Successful Programs Breed Satisfied Customers

    Evaluation of possible alternatives to required UVM work (relocation of lines, undergrounding lines, alternative construction)

  • After multiple attempts to seek agreement, follow through with required work.

As previously stated, it is imperative that these steps are followed in the majority of cases, if at all possible, to establish the concept of consistency. Many utilities that have a similar process in place rarely have lingering refusals left on their systems. Most refusals are a result of a disconnect between the customer's idea of what is proper pruning and what are industry-standard, scientifically proven arboricultural practices.

Once time is taken to provide an explanation, many of these refusals can be resolved cordially.

Clearly, UVM programs have numerous customer touchpoints. Vegetation management departments often have more day-to-day contact than most other groups within the utility. Successful programs have well-developed customer-interface programs that include, but are not limited to, those described here.

A key process to successful customer-interface programs is notification of upcoming tree work. It is imperative that customers know in advance what work is required and in the case of removals, a signature must be obtained. Having a strong notification program reduces customer complaints and can result in increased production.

Public education can improve customer-satisfaction scores by informing customers about UVM activities outside the sometimes emotionally charged tree pruning scenario.

Feedback is extremely important to measure the effectiveness of the UVM program and to cost justify the elements of the program.

Ongoing training must be part of any UVM program and include contract tree workers, third-party prenotification personnel, call center employees and several other internal departments. Make sure to keep upper management informed, because they can become effective advocates for the program.

Even after all these educational efforts, oftentimes customer refuse to allow needed UVM work to commence. In these instances, it will be necessary to enact a strong refusal process, which must be consistent in its application. If the utility is well within its rights and the offending vegetation has the potential to interfere or is already interfering with system reliability, then work must be completed. Many times repeated contacts from utility and contractor personnel are enough to convince reluctant landowners of the necessity of the work and it does proceed uneventfully.

Anne Beard ( leads the vegetation management department at Public Service Company of New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Power. She has more than 20 years experience in industry working for Florida Power & Light Co. (ECI), Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, Central Power & Light Co. and West Texas Utilities (now American Electric Power). Beard currently serves as the Rocky Mountain Chapter Representative for Utility Arborist Association and on the ISA Certification Test Committee, and is the treasurer for Think Trees New Mexico. An ISA Certified Arborist and Utility Specialist, Beard holds a BS degree in forest administration from University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point and a MBA from Oklahoma City University.