The calls keep coming

When the unexpected happens, a company’s call centre is often the first to feel the effect. But good contingency planning can ensure there is always a voice at the other end of the phone.

If the tsunami didn’t shake up a business, Sudan 1 might. Unexpected world events are often the first time most companies think about contingency management and disaster recovery. But coping with problems on the hoof is not the best way to handle them.

Planning for unforeseen events may seem like a futile activity. It is possible, however, to set in place contingency measures that can help companies to cope with “known unknowns”, such as product recalls and seasonal problems, and even “unknown unknowns”, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

One of the main reasons companies are damaged heavily by unforeseen events is a failure to communicate clearly with stakeholders about what the company is doing. “Customers lose faith; they don’t feel they are getting communication; they no longer feel secure or trusting, so the business collapses,” warns iSKY Europe head of marketing Maggie Evans.

For most situations, the best solution is to make rapid response part of a contract with the same external customer contact centre that handles the company’s general calls. David Hill, senior call centre manager at Garlands Call Centre, says: “A rapid-response function is best staffed by people who know the product and service.”

This minimises the briefing period and eliminates the need for training, since agents are already “on message”. It also enables a client to use the supplier’s emergency plans, which most have in place as part of their own disaster recovery strategy.

“We have a change control process in place. One of its key elements is an impact analysis, which assesses call volumes, the type of product involved, the skills required and so on. Then we decide how best we can service the client,” says Hill.

Steeplechase hurdles

Having to meet unexpected peaks of demand is an inherent aspect of the call centre business. Call handling company Vertex used to work with Littlewoods Bet Direct, for instance. During major sporting events, such as the Grand National, call volumes could explode.

“We needed 800 agents compared to the usual 100. The way we dealt with that was by cross-training agents and switching calls between multiple sites,” says Vertex enterprise director Mike Purvis. His company operates in 30 sites, linked together to work as a single virtual centre. Extra capacity can be plugged in to handle a specific need within 15 minutes.

Purvis points out that clients often plan more efficiently for big but rare occurrences than for smaller, more frequent events. “Many businesses have better plans for disaster recovery than business continuity – there is often still no integration between their marketing and operations,” says Purvis. Call centres are more likely to have to handle call spikes for a marketing campaign they have not been told about than for an external event impacting on the business.

For organisations operating in regulated industries and in the public sector, contingency planning is unavoidable. The Environment Agency contracted MM Teleperformance to operate its Floodline service, mixing interactive voice response (IVR) and live agents to provide crisis call management.

The service offers early warning and high-risk flood alerts using sophisticated message routing. Callers can hear real-time updates for their specific location. The system was developed over six months in partnership with the government agency, with both partners now able to initiate alerts.

“The key thing with Floodline is that we have people in the call centre monitoring weather reports, alongside the Environment Agency. They are in close communication and talk about what is likely to happen,” says MM group business development director Rachel Robinson. “They don’t need approval to go into action.”

The service has often been the UK’s second most-dialled number, after 999, during major events. It has seen a peak of 4,000 live calls and 28,600 IVR calls in a single day – a total of 61,500 call-minutes. It has given the company a lot of experience in handling emergency events.

Following the Asian tsunami, there was a spike in demand for calls to the travellers’ helpline that MM operates on behalf of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The client asked the company to handle additional calls on Boxing Day, even though the only information agents could provide was to direct callers to the FCO website. “A lot of people just want to speak to somebody,” says Robinson.

Running water

Water is also at the heart of the Waterforce service provided by Prolog Connect to a consortium of 12 small water companies. As part of their contracts with the Office of Water Services, water companies have to provide information to customers on problems such as burst mains, water shortages, discolouration and contamination.

“It is not something the companies need daily: it is just there in times of need,” says Paul Turner, business development manager at Prolog Connect. Most of the consortium members have in-house call centres, but lack the facilities to deal with up to 5,000 calls a day. A strategic service-level agreement is in place to ensure that calls are answered in 30 seconds, although some members require a 15-second response.

Crises do not happen every day, so the service has to be tested in other ways. “The service may not be called on from one end of the year to the next, so we have simulation exercises each month to test different scenarios,” he says.

Turner believes that what the public sector has to do, the private sector is increasingly under pressure to provide as well. “Brand names should have contingency plans in place. City analysts are now asking about disaster recovery. They are asking what would happen if 350 food lines were contaminated. Communication is vital,” he says.

Pressure is growing to provide crisis management facilities from a number of directions. Publicly Available Specification 56, published by the British Standards Institute, the Business Continuity Institute and Insight Consulting, is a guide to business continuity management, the strategic and operational framework for the way an organisation provides its products and services and its resilience to disruption, interruption or loss.

The guidelines could lead to a Business Standard for business continuity, with which certain sorts of company would have to comply. “In these days of heightened security, contingency planning for any kind of event, from terrorism to natural disasters, is being driven up the agenda,” notes iSKY’s Evans.

Her company has contracts with London Underground, legal services companies and financial services providers to offer business continuity management. It has also built up its own operational resilience, with mirrored servers, dual sites and three types of telephone network carriage – copper cable, satellite and microwave.

Evans says: “Even if you only offer a single number for all types of call, proper planning stops your HQ from being jammed. You can even turn a crisis into a PR coup by being active, being understanding and showing you have your head above the situation.”

Justifying the expenditure is probably the biggest obstacle to putting contingency plans in place, combined with the assumption that a supplier can always be found when and if the worst happens. Some clients expect to be able to buy in emergency services when they need them, while others plan from the outset.

“About half of our call centre clients have some sort of contingency process in place. That can range from a service-level agreement on the resources to be made available, through to a very tight process including pre-scripting, time of response and so on. Others decide what to do as and when a crisis happens,” says CPM sales and marketing director Martin Ryan.

It’s who knows you

A company’s existing suppliers are better positioned to respond than those that do not know the client, and can help to make the best of an emergency situation. The tsunami is a good example, with the public’s response overwhelming existing facilities.

All the call centres with ongoing contracts to the Disasters Emergency Committee operate under confidentiality agreements, but CPM is able to talk to the press. CPM had worked for Oxfam in the past and was asked on December 28 to handle calls from the press. Ryan says: “By the next morning, we were live. Then they asked us to handle overflow donation calls and we took the first ones that morning. By January 3, we had taken £437,000.”

Although the public response to the Asian disaster would have tested the resilience of any contingency plan, most rapid-response situations have more predictable profiles. Product recalls, for instance, are a routine feature of most manufacturing sectors and can affect any company, from a food manufacturer to a car maker.

Coping with these problems is well within the scope of most outsourced call centres. “Vehicle recall is not as big a challenge as handling the response to a new campaign,” says Ion Group sales director Mark Jones.

Dealing with unexpected campaigns thrown at them at short notice by clients is an everyday task for call centres. The ability this encourages to pick up the pieces is what allows them to handle more formalised situations, from disaster recovery and crisis management to business continuity provision. All it takes is for clients themselves to accept that events can sometimes take a turn for the worse – and to start planning for it.v

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