5 Steps to Disaster-Proofing your Contact Center

Contact centers have become the arteries of organizations, enabling customer care, retention, inbound and outbound sales, fundraising and donations, and direct response. So before a disaster threatens or strikes, take effective measures to protect your centers and the services they provide. At the same time, disasters can impact the demand for contact centers, both negatively and positively. These events can temporarily displace customers and revenues, and can also drive up sales, such for building products and services, or prompt inbound and outbound fundraising for relief efforts.

1.) Understand the consequences of contact center closure
Here’s what happens when contact centers shut unexpectedly. Customers may hear busy signals indicating overloaded or downed phone circuits, receive standard auto-attendant messages or hang-ups, or are put on hold for long periods of time with no explanation. E-mails, faxes, Web chat requests, and callbacks are often forgotten.

Some customers may then become sufficiently annoyed with you to shop elsewhere; and their reactions are understandable. Most people probably do not realize that a disaster has hit your contact centers.

If the affected contact centers were handling income-producing calls, such as inbound direct response, signing up new clients, or outbound telemarketing and collections, you could lose customers and revenues.

2.) Analyze impacts of closure to your operations
To ensure customer service, retention, and income, without spending money unnecessarily, analyze the loss of your contact centers to your organization. Look at how long they have been down, and what this has cost you. Once you know how much disasters have harmed, or can harm, your operations, you can then assess solutions for their cost-effectiveness and justify those investments and programs.

3.) Take steps to protect your contact centers
Begin by disaster-proofing your contact centers. You can avoid costly downtime by detecting and fixing trouble spots, like leak-prone hot water tanks located above computer rooms and phone switches that are not connected into backup power circuits.

Take steps to minimize contact volumes while retaining service and revenues. See which contacts you can divert to interactive voice response (IVR), Web self-service, or into voicemail. Are there programs you can defer, such as outbound surveys?

If there are services that live agents normally handle, such as order entry, tell your customers on the auto-attendant: “We are experiencing an emergency that is impacting our ability to serve you. For quicker service please access our voice menu, visit our Website, or leave a message.” Make sure you have emergency scripts and pages prewritten for quick uploading.

If you are heavily relying on IVR and your Website to stay in touch with customers, consider having them hosted at backup locations in the event of a disaster. Also, you may experience a jump in IVR usage. Carefully weigh up buying additional IVR ports, particularly if your business strategy is to encourage more customers to use self-service, or contracting with an outsourcer which saves you on up-front costs.

All contact centers should have battery-powered uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). They enable sites to ride out brief power outages; they also permit orderly shut down and data backup if centers must be closed.

Contact centers that must stay open need onsite generators, hooked into UPS systems to eliminate power fluctuations that can damage computers.

To control generator size and cost, determine the minimum number of workstations that you need, and which circuits are essential to keep your centers operational. For example, you can, in most cases, get away with keeping the air conditioning, which consumes huge quantities of electricity, off the backup power circuits; an exception is if your site also has a data center that needs constant cool temperature.

Arrange beforehand for a skeleton crew to staff your phones during disasters. Many employees will not stay if there is an imminent threat, or if they have young children or elderly parents that need their care. If your contact center is essential and you have experienced high contact volumes before, during or after a disaster, plan ahead of time so that you have enough workstations and staff. Alternatively, look at outsourcing to help shoulder some of the load.

4. Move contacts to other sites, and to outsourcers
There will be disasters that will force shifting contacts to other facilities. You can accommodate the extra volume at remaining sites, or ask outsourcers to handle them. If you go it alone, make sure you have extra desks, phones and computers at the backup sites. When events threaten or occur, ask staff to stay longer, arrive earlier and come in on their days off. The manager of our Santa Rosa, CA contact center, one of several that took calls rerouted from our Florida sites that were hit by Hurricane Frances, paid overtime and brought in sandwiches for the employees.

If you outsource, query vendors about their disaster response methods. Because there will be events that will prompt outsourcers’ contact centers to close, select those firms that have networked sites located around the country, and/or in Canada.

Set out your requirements in writing. A large utility client stipulated a multilevel disaster recovery plan in its contract with us. It includes assigning calls to sites equipped with UPSs and generators, routing calls to backup sites, offsite data backup over multiple routes, and multiple Internet connections.

Plan the rerouting ahead of time for seamless switchover. When hurricanes threaten our contact centers, we begin reroutes 72 to 48 hours ahead of landfall. Clients’ catalog, e-tail and direct response order entry, and customer care calls were diverted to alternate sites without their callers noticing any difference in the service.

Also, route a share of your regular volume to the outsourcer to keep its staff fresh and up to date; this way if a disaster strikes, agents there can effectively handle the additional calls. A utility industry client splits their volume roughly 80/20 between the lead contact center and a backup site located over 100 miles away for this reason.

Most important, make sure your customers are in the loop. In anticipation of Hurricane Ivan our mobile team placed a recording on local accounts that asked callers to “please be patient as we are experiencing a large volume of calls and we would get to them as quickly as possible.”

5. Manage disaster impacts on contact center demand
If a major disaster has or will hit large areas where you have many customers, consider canceling or postponing, if possible, direct response campaigns targeting those markets. Avoid marketing into those communities until voice/data and power are restored and residents return to their homes. If your firm markets products and services that are used in disaster response and recovery, from building supplies to portable generators, check from your past records to see if call volumes have increased, and plan accordingly at your centers. Nonprofit organizations should look at scheduling more staff at their contact centers, or outsourcing, to seek and intake donations and to manage relief efforts. By providing quality contact center services, you and your customers will successfully get through disasters together.

Gary A. Pudles is president/CEO of Princeton, NJ-based The AnswerNet Network, an outsource provider of contact center services.

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