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Article : Preparing Your Call Centre For Flu Pandemic – Part 2

Part 1 discusses how call center managers might need to start preparing now for the possibly devastating effects of a flu pandemic in call centers. The current concern has been caused by the deaths of several people from the H5N1 bird flu virus. In all cases, this virus has been passed from birds to humans, and there is currently no evidence that it is capable of widespread human-to-human transmission.

Modelling The Impact On Your Customers And Traffic
A flu pandemic will also affect the amount and type of interactions with your call centre. We recommend that you model some likely scenarios of traffic patterns. In particular, you should think about the likely profile of calls before, during and after the pandemic.

The profile of your calls during a pandemic will depend to a large extent on the nature of your business and your customers. However, you might wish to consider the following factors.

Overall, the effect of the pandemic will be to reduce economic activity – this may result in a reduction in calls to your call centre. Some sectors will be particularly badly hit, for example:

  • Travel and leisure

  • Sporting events, theatre, musical events, etc (although there may be increased traffic associated with specific events that might be, or have been cancelled).

  • Galleries and museums

  • Public transportation.

It is also likely that the public will defer spending on major purchases once it becomes clear that a pandemic is approaching, so the following sectors could also be hit hard:

  • Car sales

  • House sales

  • Furniture sales

  • Luxury items.

There is likely to be a certain amount of panic buying of food, fuel, and other essential items as the infection approaches. This may be followed by a reduction in the normal expenditure on these items in the height of the pandemic, since some members of the public will be ill, and others will wish to keep their visits to shops to a minimum.

It is possible that a higher percentage of purchases or other interactions will be made online or by phone, so as to avoid public places. So, for example, there may be a proportionate increase in online supermarket shopping, telephone and internet banking transactions and inquiries to government by phone and email. We recommend that you spend time with your team and possibly a cross section of your customers to understand how their behaviour is likely to change immediately before and during a pandemic.

Health-based call centres (e.g. those giving general health advice) are likely to see a sharp increase in traffic. This may begin as soon as it becomes clear that a pandemic is underway, and is likely to peak when the pandemic has taken hold in your national market. Again, if you have operations in this scctor, you should consider modelling the change in traffic to your call centres. Historical data may help you understand how call traffic will change – for example, what effect does the normal flu season’ have on your call centre traffic? If you do not have the means to measure this (for example, because you do not collect data in this way) you should consider doing so.

Similarly, certain types of traffic to insurance call centres are likely to increase too. Customers are likely to make more calls concerning life insurance, income protection policies, and so on.

Certain types of government call centres may also see increases in traffic. This is especially true of those connected with:

  • Foreign travel advice

  • Local government services – e.g. education, waste collection, etc

  • Social services.

Putting Plans In Place
You should have detailed and, where possible, tested plans in place to deal with a flu pandemic. The key features of these plans should be:

  • Provision for staff to work from home

  • Provisions for handling high traffic loads when your resources are stretched

  • Plans for dealing with the long term effects of a pandemic.

Having your staff working in a crowded office environment during a flu pandemic will greatly increase the likelihood of the infection passing between them. The risk to your staff will be further compounded because those who take public transport to work will be exposing themselves to an even greater risk of infection.

We therefore recommend that you make the necessary provisions for staff to be able to work from home. Not only will this be safer, it will also mean that staff will be more likely to make themselves available for work, since the danger to them is reduced, and it may also help in those cases where staff have to care for other family members who are ill or off school.

There are two main elements to running a home-based call centre operation:

  • Having the technology/service in place

  • Training and communication.

Dealing first with the technology or service, it is now possible to implement network-based call centre solutions.

Agents who work from home need a telephone line and a broadband connection. Calls from customers are routed via the server to a free agent, and screen pop information is sent via a secure instant message to the agent’s terminal. The service can be integrated with corporate IT systems, for example, giving agents access to customer records. Calls may be recorded and stored on a network-based server. Calls may also be monitored in real time by a supervisor.

In summary, therefore, network-based call centres are able to replicate all the functions of a conventional call centre, allowing agents to work productively from home.

As with any major procurement, you should take as much care as possible to ensure that you have captured your requirements as fully as possible from the outset. If possible, we recommend that you involve some of your agents in the requirements definition and evaluation stage – these are the people who will have to use the system on a daily basis, and are well equipped to identify minor or major issues from their own perspective. Our recommendation would be that you set up a multi-disciplinary working team to deal specifically with this issue, comprised of representatives from the call centre agents themselves, the IT department, finance and other relevant areas of management. You should also take care to specify the degree of integration with your current systems that you require.

You will also need to ensure that staff have a PC, telephone line and a broadband connection available to them at home. Although some may already have their own communications and IT resources, we would recommend that you provide corporate computers and communications links exclusively for work use. You will need to discuss the management of these computers with your IT department – they will need to be virus- and security-protected and kept ‘in policy’ over their lifetime.

Once you have selected and contracted with a provider of network-based call centre services, we recommend that you then include a representative from your supplier on your working team. It is important for your supplier to understand in as much detail as possible what you are trying to achieve and why. The other side of the coin is that you should take into account a supplier’s ability to support you as fully as possible when making your choice of vendor. Your needs may change as the project evolves, and you need to feel comfortable that your supplier will be sufficiently flexible and well-resourced to support you. You should also understand your supplier’s own plans for a flu pandemic - there is little point in awarding a contract to a company which will be unable to support you if the worst case scenario happens.

You will need to ensure that your staff receive the appropriate training to be able to use the home-working system.

The first step in this direction will be to draw up a framework plan for deciding when the network-based system will be deployed, how the switch-over will be communicated to staff (e.g. by phone, email and/or text message), and for communicating with the network-based call centre provider when you want to go live.

We would recommend that as part of the training process, you carry out a number of ‘dry-runs’ with sub-groups of agents working from home. Not only will this familiarise your staff with aspects of home working, it will probably bring to light some issues which you had not thought about before. Some of these may involve the set-up of the network-based call centre service, and some may be connected with other aspects of home working.

Having planned your traffic scenarios, you will be in a better position to understand where your weakest points are most likely to be. You should now consider some options for dealing with these, aside from home working.

First and foremost you will need to ensure that your callers understand your situation as fully as possible, and the implications for the level of service you can provide. You may wish to prepare some back-up messages for them which can be played over the IVR system and displayed on your website. You will need to consider the policy for invoking these messages, and the details of how it will actually be done. This is a matter to discuss with your network-based call centre provider (for recorded messages) and your IT department (for your website).

There are also measures you should consider for automating certain aspects of the call answering process. Can you use speech recognition technology, for example, to filter incoming calls and deal with certain types of calls? Can you use voice forms to record requests from customers at busy times, and deal with them when you have some spare capacity? Can you automate credit or debit card payments? You might consider blended call handling processes, where, for example, a live agent can handle queries before passing the customer to an IVR for credit card payment. Tight integration with your other IT systems can pay dividends under these circumstances, saving agents valuable time by handling straightforward data processing tasks.

You may also wish to consider of using an outsourced supplier of call centre services if you feel that you may be unable to cope in the worst case scenario. However, there are several things you need to consider before deciding to go down this route:

Is your outsourced provider likely to be any more immune than you to the effects of a pandemic? The chances are that if they are in the same country as you, they will be hit at approximately the same time by the pandemic, and so may not be able to help you much. The further they are from you geographically, the greater the possibility of their being affected at a different time. However, since we have no experience of a global pandemic in recent times, it is difficult to say how fast it will spread, and along which routes.

If you do decide to go down this route, there are numerous contractual and operational issues associated with using outsourced providers which you need to consider. These include:

  • What you are aiming to achieve from using the service – for example, out of hours cover, overflow cover, etc.

  • When and how you will use their service – these need to be reflected in the contractual terms with them

  • Service level agreements to which they can commit

  • IT integration issues, so that their agents have access to the relevant level of information about customers, and so that call records and other relevant information can be captured by your IT systems.

Finally, we would recommend that you create a crisis team which monitors performance and problems on a daily basis throughout the pandemic, and deals with any issues that may arise. This team should be empowered to make decisions as quickly as possible. The issues they encounter, and their responses to them, should be captured and reviewed after the crisis to ensure that your organisation makes the best use of the lessons learned.

About Vonage:
Company LogoVonage (NYSE: VG) is a provider of communications services connecting individuals through broadband devices worldwide. Our technology serves approximately 2.4 million subscribers. We provide communication solutions that offer flexibility, portability and ease-of-use. Our Vonage World plan offers unlimited calling to more than 60 countries with popular features like call waiting, call forwarding and voicemail - for one low monthly rate. Vonage Holdings Corp. is headquartered in Holmdel, New Jersey. Vonage is a registered trademark of Vonage Marketing Inc., a subsidiary of Vonage Holdings Corp.
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Today's Tip of the Day - Retention Team

Read today's tip or listen to it on podcast.

Published: Monday, April 10, 2006

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