Disaster-Proofing Customer Care

The following is from Princeton, NJ-based services provider AnswerNet Network.

When a contact center closes due to a hurricane, a power outage, or another disaster, customers may hear busy signals indicating overloaded or downed phone circuits, receive standard auto-attendant messages or hang-ups, or be 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 become sufficiently annoyed with you to shop elsewhere, and their reactions are understandable. Most people, after all, probably will not have realized that the reason for the lack of service is some sort of disaster.

To ensure customer service, retention, and income without spending money unnecessarily, analyze the loss of your contact centers to your organization. Once you know how much a disaster has harmed, or can harm, your operations, you can assess solutions for their cost-effectiveness and justify those investments and programs.

Begin by disaster-proofing your contact centers. You can avoid costly downtime by detecting and fixing trouble spots, such as 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 revenue. See which contacts you can divert to interactive voice response (IVR), Web self-service, or 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 affecting our ability to serve you. For quicker service please use our voice menu, visit our Website, or leave a message.” Make sure you have emergency scripts and pages prewritten for quick uploading.

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, especially if they have young children or elderly parents who need their care.

Avoid making outbound calls from contact centers that are threatened or have been hit with disasters. You then keep phone circuits free for essential services.

Some disasters 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 prompt outsourcers’ contact centers to close, select 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.

Whether contacts are handled at backup sites or at outsourcers’ centers, devise agent scripting ahead of time. These staffers will then have the basics to meet most callers’ needs, in order to handle sophisticated inquiries put in escalation procedures.

Plan the rerouting ahead of time for seamless switchover. When hurricanes threaten our contact centers, we begin reroutes 48-72 hours ahead of landfall. Clients’ catalog, e-tail and direct response order entry and customer care calls are diverted to alternate sites without their customers 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 they can effectively handle the additional calls. A utility industry client splits its volume roughly 80/20 between the lead contact center and a backup site more than 100 miles away for this reason.

Most important, make sure your customers are in the loop. In anticipation of Hurricane Ivan our Mobile, AL, 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.”

By providing quality contact center services, you and your customers will successfully get through disasters together.