Karen is joined on this episode by General Manager Bill Rogers and Assistant General Manager Ben Newman of Caney Fork Electric Cooperative. They discuss how members should respond in moments of crisis and how they can help mitigate outages to keep the power on.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Karen Wilson: I’m Karen Wilson, and this is your marketing minute.
Karen Wilson: Nothing frustrates a customer more than walking up to the door of a business, pulling on the door and finding it locked. Ugh. Whether it’s a change of hours, staff shortages, sickness or weather, communicate those changes to your customers as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. Start with a voicemail message on your phone. Update that when things are out of the norm so callers will know why you aren’t answering. Utilize social media, but don’t only use social media. Yes, post to all the media you use, but don’t think all your customers will see that. Of course, post a message on your physical door with an apology, a reason for being closed and, if possible, when you will reopen. If you have a business where people book appointments or have reservations, call them. That seems like a no brainer, but it isn’t always done. So whatever your situation, remember to be sympathetic to your customers needs and expectations. You can’t over-communicate changes enough and use all the resources you have. I’m Karen Wilson with Ben Lomand Connect and this is your marketing minute.
Karen Wilson: Welcome to the mini podcast of the BLC Connection. Let’s get connected today with Caney Fork. Our guest is General Manager Bill Rogers and Assistant GM Ben Newman. Welcome to the BLC Connection.
Bill Rogers: Thank you for having us.
Karen Wilson: Thank you.
Karen Wilson: Happy to have you both here today. We’ve got lots to talk about, but the first, let’s start, Bill, with kind of the the beginning of Caney Fork and our service territory.
Bill Rogers: Ok, Caney Fork was formed back in 1940, when the rural residents were desiring central station electrification. And so a lot of folks got together and formed the co-op. The early funding came through the Rural Electrification Administration, which was part of the USDA. That was all part of the New Deal. And so those folks got together, and the first lines were energized in 1942.
Karen Wilson: Wow. So quite some years you all have been in the territory. I know Ben Lomand also got their start a few years after that due to the rural electrification that also helped bring phone lines into the area. But many, many years of service in our area. And Bill, you said we’ve done a previous interview, and you’ve been at the company for quite some time now.
Bill Rogers: 36 years.
Karen Wilson: 36 years. So, and you’re getting ready to turn the reins over to to Mr. Newman here.
Bill Rogers: Mid-May is going to be my last day, and then Ben will take it from there.
Ben Newman: Bill said he’ll take my calls, though, after that.
Karen Wilson: That’s a lifeline that you need at that point. You know, your first day can be a little bit — first week or so — can be a little bit intimidating, I’m sure. But you’ve been actually at Caney Fork for a while now. Tell me, though, how you kind of came to Caney Fork?
Ben Newman: Well, I practiced law for 12 years. Part of that was representing utilities. My father represented McMinnville Electric and still does. I was on the Board there for a couple of years, and I started representing Caney Fork Electric about three years ago as their corporate counsel. And then through that, I got to know a lot more about it. Bill announced his retirement coming up, and so the Board decided to go out for someone to replace him. And so I applied, interviewed, and was blessed enough to be chosen. And so I’ve been working there since June of ’21.
Karen Wilson: Did your wife think that was a big jump when you said, “Honey, I think I’m going to stop practicing law and go over into the utility business?”
Ben Newman: Yeah, you know, it is a really big career shift, but I think, you know, I’ve got experience with the city of McMinnville being on the city council there for eight years. The last two, as mayor there. It really gave me a lot of experience to do this — putting out fires, helping put out fires, at the city was a good experience for me. So she was behind me. We talked about it a lot and thought about it and thought this was the best thing for our family.
Karen Wilson: And you mentioned off away from the mic here that you have electricity in your veins as far as through your your DNA with your grandfather.
Ben Newman: That’s right. Edley Newman was hired back in 1942 at Caney Fork. Started off as a project manager for getting lines out, and then a little bit later hired as the general manager where he served for almost 30 years. I’ve had linemen in my family. My uncle, Ed Newman, was a lineman, his two sons, Glen and George. We’ve had a lot of family, and Glen’s son, Clint, is a lineman.
Karen Wilson: Ok, so yeah, it’s still part of your family, a big part of that. And every time you bring up Mr. Edley’s name, now I think of delicious barbecue too. So you guys are all over the place, aren’t you? So, you know, when talking about critical services, Caney Fork always comes to mind with electricity. What does customer support look like at Caney Fork when a storm has knocked out a large portion of the territory?
Bill Rogers: When bad weather hits, be it an ice storm, tornado, whatever it may be, then we have a written plan called “Our Emergency Restoration Plan” that we enact that assigns tasks to each employee there, and each employee just falls in to do their part of that. You know, the folks up front — cashiers, accounting — they’re taking outage calls. Those outage calls were then filtered to operations. Operations diagnoses where the problems are. Then dispatches the linemen and all the field personnel to get out and try to, you know, do reconnaissance and repair of the power lines. Once those outages are restored, then those come back. We do our best to try to get back in touch then with our members and make sure and confirm that they are back on. I call it occasionally organized chaos. There’s a lot of things going on in the office to make that happen. We have other needs. I mean, if this goes, you know, a multi-hour or even a multi-day, then we’re looking at possibly getting meals out in the field to our people to help. It may be bringing mutual aid in from other utilities, and then that brings on housing, laundry, again meal service and all the things that it takes to make that happen. And everybody has their job, and I don’t have to tell anybody what their job is. They know that. Everybody’s been there, they’ve been through these. And when the phone starts ringing off the hook and people are out, then our folks go to work and they really shine in getting these folks restored.
Karen Wilson: Sounds like a lot of experienced employees over the years really know their stuff there at Caney Fork and are used to dealing with customers in a crisis. Because electricity can be a crisis for us when we do not have that. Being as somebody new coming in, and also, you’re kind of in the seed of being a new employee per se, how do y’all prepare your employees for this, whether it’s safety or helping them with the family situations, I guess? Or talk to us about that.
Ben Newman: Well, we have monthly safety meetings with our linemen, and so we have training with that and just going through these things. We are supposed to have, if we don’t have an outage, we’re supposed to conduct a mock outage. And we don’t have to do that because we have outages every year, it seems. Sometimes multiple times a year. So our employees are trained through that as well.
Karen Wilson: And Bill, we talked on our table talk episode earlier about major outages due to weather. Go through some of the history, I guess in your tenure, you’re 37 years, some of the biggest ones that you can recall.
Bill Rogers: Well, no doubt the worst one was the ice storm of ’98. It was just before Christmas break, or before we were going to go home for Christmas. We get Christmas Eve and Christmas off as holidays, and it was the last day we were working before the Christmas break. And it had been raining all day. And about the time it was time to go home, all that rain started turning to ice. And we brought everybody back in. We started trying to restore, but as soon as we would get one thing on, three more would go out. And it was fighting a losing battle. But that was again the worst one we’ve ever had. It took us seven days to get everyone restored. We had a lot of damage, a lot of broken poles. We had to completely rebuild a line up to our members on top of Rocky River Mountain. We had to get a rock digging truck from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation in here to help with that. And that was our emergency restoration plan in full force. Between all the mutual aid. I mean, some of our ladies in the office were doing laundry for those guys, getting hotel rooms, coordinating meals. Like I said, all those things that go into that. And I’ll tell you one thing in our business, you know, our linemen say it’s always better to go help someone in need than it is to need the help yourself. And that’s true. And when you’re sitting there over the time of Christmas, and you look up and you see a face that you’ve never seen before, it’s a lineman that left their family in another community to come help you, that means so much. And we’re always appreciative of the brotherhood of the linemen out there, and their willingness to to leave their family and come help when things are dire.
Karen Wilson: Linemen are. You see things on, I think there’s a lot of appreciation for linemen and all the workers in utilities. But they are the ones you think of being away from their families out in the cold, the weather and things like that. The places that we don’t want to be. We want to be snuggled with our family back at the house, but they’re out trying to restore our power for us and kind of the unsung heroes of of the world, I think. Is there anything customers can do to make outages, I guess less likely or to prepare for an outage, especially when you know, bad weather is coming?
Bill Rogers: Well, I would say day in and day out, the best thing that our members can do to try to prevent an outage is to work with us on our right away maintenance. We have roughly a $2 million a year right away budget that we manage. And of course, we’re out trimming trees. We’re doing all the things we can do to try to keep the lines as clear as we can. Can you always cut enough right away? No, because you can never tell when a tree is going to fall out of the woods. From up on a hill, but just working with us on our right away program would be one thing. And then trying to make sure if their own home, if they have overhead electrical service, just making sure the trees around that overhead conductor are trimmed up is as much as they can be. So that would be the big thing I would say.
Ben Newman: I would add a little bit to that. When you’re planting trees, don’t plant trees under power lines. We see it happen from time to time, and just making sure you’re concerned about where you’re planning it, make sure it’s not going to get next to power lines.
Karen Wilson: Right, sometimes we forget how large things like that tend to grow, and hopefully the tree is going to be there 30, 40, 50 years and beyond. And what was quite a distance from a line when you first initially planted it, and also, I guess even if you have, keeping them trimmed where they’re not falling on lines and creating havoc in your house and neighbors’ homes and things like that. So in case of bad weather and during outages, do customers always need to report it, or sometimes I feel like Caney Forks is basically telepathic, and they’re supposed to know when I’m out. But that’s not necessarily the case?
Bill Rogers: Well, while we have infrastructure in place that we can use to see if you have service, it only answers a question if asked. It doesn’t automatically report if it goes out. So always the best thing to do is call-in and let us know. And that’s the best thing because, you know, if we’re not at the office answering the phones, then we used the call center here at Ben Lomand, to take our overflow and after hours calls. So you’re going to get to talk to somebody one way or the other.
Ben Newman: To find out what number you need to call in case your power goes out, each county has a different line. So go to caneyforkec.com, and there’s lists there that tell for which county you’re in, what number to call.
Karen Wilson: Yes. And I will say, you know, even if you can’t fire up your laptop or whatever at that moment, usually your phone’s not out too. You can look that up on your mobile device as well. But lots of good resources. Now I know here at Ben Lomand, we have a lot of people that like to report outages and things like that on social media, which is an outlet, but it’s not quite as dependable because there’s just inundated, I guess, with messages and things like that.
Bill Rogers: We do try to use Facebook to keep people post on where we’re working. The only thing is, you know, we have feeder lines that are 25 miles long, so we could be 20 miles away from your house doing something to get your power back on and you have no idea that’s going on.
Karen Wilson: Right, and it makes people feel better, I guess, to get those updates and think, “OK, they’re in Morrison or they’re in Dibrell. I know they’re on it. Let’s talk about solar a little bit. I know that’s something that this area is slowly getting more and more people to install solar panels. And what are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering adding those or building a new home?
Ben Newman: You know, we are your trusted energy advisor. Part of our mission is to help people use a little bit less energy. As a cooperative, that’s one of our principles. So we would encourage people to come and talk to our member services and ask questions about what solar can and can’t do. Sometimes people think if they hook up to solar, they may not get a bill anymore. And that’s not necessarily true. If you’re hooked up to us, you’re still going to get a minimum bill every month. So we just want people to know and be aware of some things that solar can and can’t do.
Karen Wilson: Yes. I think that’s a good point to bring up is your energy advisors. They do an excellent job at coming to your house. Basically, I think, isn’t it free of charge that they come?
Bill Rogers: Yes, it’s free of charge, and you know, they go on high bill complaints. They do energy audits. They do all those things. They use the data that we collect through metering to help people understand where their energy is going. And probably that’s been one of the biggest tools we put in the toolbox in my tenure, is the information we get through that automated metering.
Karen Wilson: Advise on everything from insulation to windows to anything you might be considering as far as energy efficiency. And sometimes there’s even grants and things like that out there at times to help with those things.
Bill Rogers: At times, there’s some loan programs that we participate in through TVA with all that. So yes, if you’re in the market, you need a heat pump, and you’re one of our members, or you need a water heater, just contact us and see what we may have available to help.
Karen Wilson: I know during this time of the year, lots of businesses have to deal with customers during a time of crisis, whether it’s closing because of weather. Or any tips or takeaways you would give to small businesses and how they deal with their customers during a time of crisis?
Bill Rogers: Be available. You know, be there. Be there ready to answer the questions. Be there ready to respond. You know, when our members are out, like I said in the earlier table talk episode, you know, we have a plan for how we go about that, and everybody knows their duty. So you just fall right in and do that.
Karen Wilson: It’s kind of like have that emergency plan ahead of time. No matter how small the business, it’s always good to have a plan in place. I know you said you had worked at your law offices and things like that over the years. I’m sure during times — and especially during the pandemic and things like that — we’re used to kind of being without employees, things of that nature and lots of small businesses closing the doors and things like that for, you know, temporarily a day or two. But I’m sure just getting that message out there to your customers is key.
Ben Newman: Yes. Yes, it is. You know, we try to stay — we try to inform our our members when we’re closing the lobby, for example. We’ve had, you know, sometimes we have sickness run through our office, and we have to consider whether we’re going to close the office, the lobby or not. And luckily, lately, we haven’t had to do that. But if we ever do, we post that and let people know.
Karen Wilson: Well, thank you, Bill and Ben both for being our first guest on this special business segment of The BLC Connection podcast. I’d like to invite our listeners to tune-in in the future for episodes and share this content with other businesses. Until next time, thank you both gentlemen for keeping us connected, and this is The BLC Connection.