6 Ways to Cope with Call-Center Disasters

Updated: April 30, 2009

Disasters are usually thought of as fires, floods, hurricanes and other large-scale acts of nature. But smaller calamities can be just as disruptive for your call center. A drunk driver who rams the pole at the end of your street and takes out your phone and power lines will still prevent you from serving customers.

Unless, of course, you have a tried-and-true disaster-recovery plan . These six tips can get you on the path to preparedness.

1. Have a plan. An event that shuts down your call center is not an opportunity to improvise. You want a well thought-out and tested plan ready to go."Think it through ahead of time," advised Bill Samuels, president of Telesales Services LLC , a firm that specializes in helping companies outsource call centers , including temporary outsourcing to cover disaster or high-volume surges.

2. Examine your assumptions carefully. One of the trickiest parts of disaster-recovery planning is determining what type of problems your call center could potentially face — and what services you can assume will or will not be affected. This is a combination of probabilities of events and some creative paranoia.

For example, in this age of cell phones , many disaster plans assume that communications and call-center service will not be disrupted. In fact, many large-scale disasters, such as storms, fires and even floods can knock out cell phone service just as effectively as they take down landlines.

Similarly, you can't assume you will have electricity or other services in the wake of a disaster. This doesn't just affect your phone systems — it impacts your staff's well-being. How will your CSRs (customer service representatives) have enough light to see in the bathrooms, for instance? And if water is cut off, will the bathrooms be usable?

One particularly challenging area of disaster planning is trying to estimate how long the problem will last. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has traditionally assumed that basic services will be restored to most areas within 72 hours. However, Hurricane Katrina knocked out basic services for months in some New Orleans neighborhoods.

Of course, preparing for a long-term outage is much more expensive than getting ready for one that will last for only a day. You must therefore balance expense against economic loss in your calculations.

3. Prepare. Forewarned, as they say, is half an octopus. The key to successfully navigating a disaster is having a disaster-recovery plan in place. It should detail how you will respond to a disaster; whom will have which roles; where you will go; and how you will handle your people, power generation, phone lines and other contingencies.

Your phone company has disaster-recovery specialists who can advise you on available services and other phone-related details of your plan. For example, you can usually make arrangements to have your telephones automatically transferred to your backup site in the event of a disaster. This assumes you have a backup site with sufficient lines and phone sets to allow you to continue at least minimal operation. The most common situation is to set up either a "bare wall" alternate center (i.e. room and lines but no equipment) or a spare facility complete with phones in place, thus needing only the lines to cut over and the staff to relocate.

Another possibility is to temporarily outsource your call center until the situation gets back to normal. Telesales Services is one outsourcing provider with a division that specializes in matching companies facing a disaster with call centers that can handle their call volume until they get re-established.

Samuels pointed out, however, that an alternate call center requires training and preparation to pick up the slack. Most outsourced call centers want to have at least two weeks of training before they take over to make sure their CSRs can handle your company's policies and procedures. Obviously, this requires advance planning.

4. Practice your plan regularly. Stuff happens. And when the stuff hits the fan even the smallest glitch is magnified.

Something as simple as arriving at the recovery site and finding no one has keys to the building can put you hours behind schedule in getting back up. Other problems are more obscure. For example, you need to make sure that you really can cut your phone lines over to your alternate site

According to a recent study of disaster-recovery efforts by Symantec Corp ., major companies hold disaster-recovery drills at least once a year to test their procedures. The reason this is so important is revealed by another fact from the Symantec report. Nearly half of the disaster-recovery drills considered failed. Half the time a recovery couldn't be completed according to plan because something went seriously wrong.

5. Play "what-if." One of the most important what-ifs involves a disaster's impact on everything and everyone around you. While the most common types of disasters involve only your company, some disasters can affect an entire city. If you're unthinkingly relying on everyone around you doing business as usual, you can find yourself in trouble.

For example, in last year's San Diego brush fires , companies ran into unexpected problems because so many people were being evacuated and large areas were closed to outside access. When brush fires swept toward its San Diego office, one manufacturer of data-storage devices found that all three of its disaster-recovery plan leaders were unavailable; one had to evacuate her house, another had already been evacuated and the third couldn't get to the office because of travel restrictions. Because of travel problems, the company's CSRs ended up camping in the building between shifts servicing customers.

6. Pay attention to your staff. People are the key to a call center. Even the best-managed disaster tests the loyalty and skill of CSRs and other call-center staff.

Generally, the best strategy is doing everything possible to support your people in the emergency. This includes ordering out for food, making sure they can contact their families on their breaks, stocking up on necessary supplies (from bottled water to sanitary napkins) and providing pillows, sleeping bags and a quiet nap room where they can rest.

It's also critically important to recognize the extra effort your employees are making, monetarily if possible, but certainly loudly and publicly.

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