Disaster-Proofing Customer Care

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Contact centers have become the arteries of organizations, enabling customer service, retention and income. So when a disaster threatens or strikes, take effective measures to protect your centers and the services they provide.

Here’s what happens when contact centers close. 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. Emails, 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.

And, if you provide a critical service such as electricity, gas, telecom, water, healthcare or transportation, your customers expect you to be there. Your call volume may jump and callers may be impatient and worried.

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.

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.

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, like outbound market research?

If there are services that live agents normally handle, such as order entry/processing, tell your customers on the auto-attendant: “We are experiencing an emergency that is impacting our ability to serve you. For quicker service please use our voice menu, visit our web site, or leave a message.” Make sure you have emergency scripts and pages pre-written 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 shutdown 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, in most cases you can 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 a 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.

Be prepared for unexpected disruptions. When BellSouth, anticipating an evacuation order during Hurricane Ivan that never came, ended their local phone service in Mobile, Alabama, our contact center there was forced to shut down. Our team reached the telephone company, explained our situation, and they quickly reconnected the service.

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.

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. Our Santa Rosa, California center took rerouted calls from our Florida sites that were hit by Hurricane Frances. The General Manager 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, such as AnswerNet, that have networked sites located around the country and/or in Canada.

Set out your requirements in writing. A large utility client stipulated a multi-level disaster recovery plan in their contract with us. It included assigning calls to sites equipped with a UPS 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. While 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 to 72 hours ahead of landfall. Clients’ catalog, e-commerce and direct response order entry, and customer care calls were 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 their staff fresh and up to date; this way, if a disaster strikes they 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 very reason.

Most importantly, make sure your customers are in the loop. In anticipation of Hurricane Ivan, our Mobile, Alabama 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.

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