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Weathering the Storm: Best Practices for Disaster Prevention and Recovery

When it comes to disaster prevention and recovery Contact Solutions, a cloud-based customer self-service solutions provider, has the process down pat. When Hurricane Sandy caused severe disruptions to power and services for thousands of residents and businesses along the U.S. east coast, the Virginia-based company was not only able to maintain normal operating levels for all clients and their customers during and after the storm, but it was also able to help prepare more than 80 of their clients for the potential service disruptions in advance.

The Cloud Enables A Proactive Approach

So, how did the company do it?

Paul Logan President and CEO of Contact Solutions, credits the achievement, to the company’s cloud-based platform. He says, "First and foremost, we built a very resilient cloud-based platform that would be difficult for an individual enterprise to replicate cost-effectively for just its own business needs. With our shared cloud model, we can invest heavily in redundancy and geographic diversity to achieve very high service availability- and all of our clients benefit from that investment."

With clients based all over the U.S., Contact Solutions operates four strategically-placed data centers, each employing multiple layers of system redundancy to ensure that no single point of failure can cause a disruption to service. The individual centers are capable of accepting and re-routing calls from anywhere in the nation. They can also re-route back end connections to enterprise data from one center to another. For example, if a call arrives in one center that’s having trouble reaching a client’s host, the host request can be routed through a different data center in order to more quickly establish a connection to the enterprise. These capabilities not only ensure high availability, but also provide a better customer experience by being extremely responsive.

As a result of the security that these multiple layers of redundancy provide, Contact Solutions was able to work with its clients in advance of the storm to incorporate specialized messages into inbound and outbound IVR solutions. The company was able to activate hundreds of pre-recorded messages as the storm conditions progressed. And over the course of the week, it was also able to respond to client requests for messaging and IVR changes and updates in real-time, which kept customers better informed of hurricane-related issues such as service interruptions, flight delays, special emergency benefits and procedures, and temporary process changes.

Best Practices for Expecting the Unexpected

Whether disruptions are planned or not, Logan asserts that the first things to remember are the fundamental contact center management principles. Contact centers are designed to adapt to high-volume scenarios that may be more extreme than the norm. However, contact centers also need to leverage their cheapest volume-management asset – technology - and reduce the pressure on their higher cost asset - labor. Every contact center should have disaster recovery and business continuity plans and ideally should have tested them thoroughly. He says, "The contact center is already a disaster recovery hub, but professionals are often bombarded with the pressure of short-term volume management rather than medium to longer-term considerations. It is important for managers to take the time to understand and prepare the center for natural disasters, as those types of scenarios are a somewhat frequent occurrence in contact centers."

In order to be sure that your center is prepared for a disaster and/or an unexpected interruption of service, Logan recommends first mastering three basic elements – people, process and technology.

People: Since contact centers are dealing with people on a constant basis, it is important that all employees know how to deal with callers facing volatile situations.

Process: Know in advance what the process will be to manage moderate to extreme volumes and hone that process. Make sure it works for customer, employees and senior management.

Technology: Contact center professionals are typically focus less of their time on technology management. The first step is to determine what your technology can offer you in terms of volume management. Is it a key part of your resource utilization plan? How are you migrating self-service tasks and communication to technology to reduce your dependency on labor?

Once you have those elements covered, you are ready to take on a full-fledged disaster preparation and recovery plan.

Six Steps for Weathering Any Storm

Hurricane Sandy was not the first natural disaster that Contact Solutions persevered through in 2012. Logan told ICMI that within the past year, the company has also upheld uninterrupted customer service for its clientele throughout an earthquake and the third-largest power outage in Virginia’s history. Natural disasters typically don’t allow for ample time to prepare. Even with the benefit of pre-event warnings, there is usually only a few hours to prepare. In order to resist being caught off-guard, Logan recommends that your contact center follow these six steps:

1. Have a Plan: If you are running a contact center, one of the most important things you can do is create a plan that will dictate what will happen during a natural disaster or crisis situation. Preparation is 90 percent of the battle.

2. Enforce Employee Safety & Preparedness: Contact centers are a high labor force environment, which is a negative for incident management and control. Having more complete and effective self-service solutions helps reduce the dependency on a contact center labor force. Employees need a clear outline of what conditions will dictate attendance/non-attendance at work, and how that communication is to be made. This is also an action that could be supported through an automated employee communication system – why not let your self-service technology work for your employees as well as your customers?

3. Consider Potential Customer Communication: Will the natural disaster impact your service to customers? Are customers in impacted areas? If you have an automated solution that enables you to effectively communicate with your customer base, plus up-to-date contact info, this can be a benefit.

4. Consider Capacity: How will the disaster impact your regular workloads? Some disasters temporarily decrease volumes, other create massive volume peaks. Again, managing a labor force while having a drop or surge in volumes is not ideal. The more you can control these surges through self-service technology, the better the outcomes will be.

5. Geographic Diversity: How local to the incident is your contact center? If you only have one, it leaves you at a disadvantage. Even companies with multiple centers often have limited geographic diversity. If your technology is also local, then the problem is expanded. Consider cloud technology – don’t put all your eggs in one local basket! Also, look at having a portion of employees as remote workers; it will help manage fluctuating volumes. Use technology to help manage around the storm.

6. Don’t Panic: Contact centers are designed to handle volume surges at maximum efficiency. Leverage your process for volume management: optimized self-service, automated communications, additional staffing, remote employees, overflow centers, vendors or groups.

What If…?

In the event that your contact center is caught off guard by a major service disruption, the first thing to do is communicate. Your staff and customers will be looking to you for guidance, make sure that you are managing customer and employee expectations and be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What is expected of employees?
  • Have there been any disruptions in service?
  • Do you expect any disruptions in service?
  • If there is a disruption, when can clients & customers expect normal services to resume?

Ideally, the contact center should understand the impact of disruption-related performance issues and resources required to solve them, then use this understanding to leverage technical communication (self-service) prior to the disruption. But if this is not possible, then implement it as soon as you are able to. Having a self-service solution that enables real-time disaster recovery management, such as temporary messaging, queue messaging and management and alternate center routing will be a benefit.

Paul Logan is President and Chief Executive Officer of Contact Solutions (www.contactsolutions.com) and brings his almost two decades of expertise to providing superior automated customer contact solutions to leading enterprises across many diverse industries. Previously, Mr. Logan served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for iBasis Speech Solutions, and held senior positions in sales management, program and business development at Lucent Technologies and DynCorp ATS. Throughout his career, Mr. Logan has gained recognition for dramatically increasing sales while rapidly growing revenues to record levels. His keen insight into client needs, and innovative approaches to meeting these needs helped him to earn client recognition for excellence in quality and service.

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.