Article : How Your Contact Center Can Survive Disasters
Disasters can happen at any time,
any place. As contact centers become more critical in organizations, it is vital
that you take steps to protect these operations and the services- customer care,
help desk and sales- the centers provide.
Ensuring The Basics
The first step is ensuring the survival of your people and assets in an emergency. Contact centers have certain characteristics that require special attention.
For example, there are many more
employees for a given area than in other businesses -- 6 or 7 workers per 1,000
square feet -- compared with 4 workers in an office. This means you have many
more people to evacuate in a given period of time.
Contact centers also handle considerable volumes of confidential data. This information needs to be saved, shifted off site and secured quickly in an emergency.
Here are the best tips to protect your contact center:
Harden your center to prevent or minimize the impact of disasters by eliminating or working around potential points of failure. These include hot water tanks above computer rooms and generators and switches located in basements.
Monitor and crack down on potentially deadly careless practices like blocking emergency exits and smoking outside of prescribed areas. Dismiss any employee found committing those acts.
Check and update your emergency plans. Take every precaution, such as fresh batteries in flashlights, generators have been tested and, most importantly, drill your employees on evacuation procedures.
This last point is critical: You need to clear your staff in the same amount of time as any other building tenant with the same size of space. Disasters wait for no one.
Should your procedure call for your contact centers to ride out emergencies, equip them with bottled water and high-protein/energy foods like granola bars. Water lines may be broken; also, treatment may have stopped, making water potentially unsafe to drink. It may take many hours after a disaster has struck before conditions permit you to leave the premises.
Maintain an accurate list of who is present in your contact centers. Otherwise, life-endangering chaos can ensue in disaster as individuals and emergency personnel fruitlessly search for people who are actually not there.
If a contact center is forced to close, contact all employees immediately, especially those who are scheduled to come in, to avoid having them trapped in the ensuing chaos.
Check if your connections have enough bandwidth to move high volumes of information off your premises quickly. Your data should be sent to a secure location in another community that will not be affected by the same disasters.
Equip your contact center with battery-powered uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). UPS systems enable sites to ride out brief power outages; they also permit orderly shut down and data backup should your facilities be forced to close.
If you have generators, always have them hooked into UPS systems to eliminate power fluctuations that can damage computers.
When severe weather threatens, designate employees to monitor the National Weather Service on battery-powered radios. Have them pay attention to the possibility of flash floods and tornadoes. If a tornado warning is issued, move employees to your building's designated safety area; if there isn't one, have your staff take shelter in an interior hallway on a lower floor, closet or small room and away from windows.
When the alarm sounds or evacuation orders are given, don't turn back. Many lives have been lost by people going back to retrieve a coat or purse.
Keep critical vendor, telco and utility company records, such as circuit IDs on your person or off-site.
Have a recovery plan in place ahead of time, including phone trees with everyone's home and cell numbers. Set up an employee check-in and status update line in a city or town out of harm's way.
Protecting Customer Access
The second step is to protect customer access. When a disaster threatens or strikes, customers need to be served and/or kept in the loop.
Chances are good that callers will be annoyed if they can't get through. This is understandable as most people will not know that a disaster has hit your center.
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; callers may be
impatient and worried.
To best serve your customers, take a closer look at how best to stay in touch with them during emergencies:
Determine which contacts you can divert to low-cost low-risk options such as IVR and web self-service, into voicemail, or defer, such as outbound programs.
If you decide that you do not need to communicate directly with customers during emergencies, tell them 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 or visit our web site, or leave a message." Make sure you have emergency scripts and pages pre-written for quick uploading.
If you need to handle customers' calls with live agents, determine the best means how for the value of those interactions. The options include equipping your contact centers to survive disasters, such as with generator power and with satellite-fitted trucks to protect you during voice/data outages; rerouting calls to distant sites; and outsourcing to providers with contact centers located in communities that will not be affected by the same events.
You can rent temporary generators to power your contact centers. Remember, these units will be snapped up quickly, so obtain them as early as possible before a severe weather event, like a hurricane or tropical storm.
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.
Should you need to serve customers at your sites, here are several points to consider:
Take extra steps to disaster-proof your site. For example, is your contact center on the ground floor in a lower-lying area? Consider having sandbags at the ready or if you own the building, construct ramparts. Do you have exterior windows? Look at installing metal shutters over them to prevent flying glass and debris.
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. An exception is if your site also has a data center that needs constant cool temperature.
Never rely solely on voice over IP. Power and Internet service will go down before telco-provided PSTN, which energizes circuits from charged batteries housed in central offices.
Avoid making outbound calls from contact centers that are threatened or have been hit. You then keep phone circuits free for essential services.
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.
Assuming your centers remain open during and after a disaster, arrange transportation for some of your employees.
Have a call rerouting or outsourcing plan in place in case you have to evacuate your centers.
The third step is advance planning, to put your procedures in play. Here are some key areas to cover:
Whether your contacts are handled by your backup sites, or by outsourcers, devise ahead of time simple scripting and training. While these staffers will never be as proficient as the regulars, they will at least have the basics.
Alternatively, route a share of your regular volume to the other locations to keep their staff fresh and up to date.
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.
Plan and implement contact rerouting far ahead of time for seamless switchover. Stay in touch with your long-distance and local telcos and have their contact information on hand at all times in case service is disrupted.
Have a recovery plan to phase your operations back to normal, with the implementation depending on the severity of disasters. It may take some time before employees return to and resume living in their homes or in replacement accommodations.
The good news is that people are
very eager to rebuild their lives. This will also include helping your contact
centers to get back in operation. By taking these tips, your contact
centers will be better prepared to withstand and recover from the next disaster.
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About Gary Pudles:
Gary A. Pudles is President and CEO of the AnswerNet Network. He is also on the Wharton's Venture Initiation Program steering committee. Prior to founding AnswerNet Pudles served as vice president & general counsel, Apex Site Management (now American Tower), vice president, Muzak and manager, real estate, American Personal Communications.
The AnswerNet Network is a telemessaging call center business and a provider of outsourced contact center and fulfillment services. On a combined basis, the AnswerNet Network centers have an average experience level of over 30 years each in the telemessaging business.
Published: Tuesday, May 16, 2006