Safe Haven: A Disaster-Planning Case Study

By Gina R George

Disaster planning is rather like flossing. We all know we should, but what we know and what we do are often two different things. Yet a good disaster plan does more than provide peace of mind. It can help you retain business in the face of a crisis – and even serve as a marketing advantage.

Absent Answer, based in Jacksonville, Florida, appreciates these facts more than ever. Owner Cindi Roth had been considering a back-up plan for some time, especially after losing some business because of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. She started making her ideas a reality earlier this year after talking with colleagues from MessagePlex National Call Center Services  (an Ohio-based call center).

I had a discussion with Bob Denman at a user group conference in the spring,” said Roth, speaking of MessagePlex’s Vice-President. She found Denman to be “a straight-forward, honest kind of guy. Most times these conversations revolve around what is possible to do based on hearsay and vendor offerings, but Bob was very specific. He had Phil Corrigan and Scott Harbin to back him up. It doesn’t get much better than that.” Corrigan is Operations Manager and Harbin is a fulltime Information Technology Manager for MessagePlex.

The initial discussions took on greater intensity with the approach of Hurricane Charley in mid-August. “Fortunately, Absent Answer didn’t experience any problems from that storm,” said Denman. “Hurricane Frances was another matter.”

Creating the Plan: Based on its experiences with previous hurricanes, Absent Answer wanted to transfer some or all of their clients’ calls to MessagePlex in case its own operations were disrupted by power outages, staff shortages, or other weather-related problems. The first step was to determine the best way to transfer account information from one service to the other.

According to Harbin, the process was simplified greatly since both MessagePlex and Absent Answer use the same equipment platform, Amtelco’s Infinity system. Without that compatibility, “the process would be completely manual,” said Harbin. “We would probably have to design the accounts as though they are all brand new accounts.”

Instead, Absent Answer used a new client import/export feature to export their system data to a Microsoft Access database. Then, they sent that data to MessagePlex.  According to Harbin, “They sent us that database, plus the script file they used to export that data. I modified the account numbers in the database to import into an unused range of accounts. I then used the client import/export software to import their accounts into our system.”

Harbin’s description sounds simple, but the process wasn’t worry-free. Corrigan said, “The software used to import the client data was new to us – and to them. It hadn’t been used before by either of us. Learning how it works and the potential impact it could have on our current data made it fearful, especially with the pressure of the time frame we were up against. We had to be clear on how the import would impact our current accounts and system set ups, and make sure that we were able to mirror the expectations of their clients to ensure a seamless transition.”

Once the import was completed, MessagePlex was able to handle Absent Answer’s calls from a programming standpoint. However, that was not the only consideration. Although both services are Infinity-based, they do things quite differently. MessagePlex, for example, makes extensive use of Infinity’s OnCall Scheduler, while Absent Answer uses the info pages in Infinity Agent to record on-call information.

According to Corrigan, “It was challenging to incorporate a different process in call taking and to educate our staff on the different procedures. Making the account instructions more clear in the future would be a benefit, as would taking more time in the planning stages to understand how the other call center handles call taking. There are a number of ways to handle calls, but in the end we usually have the same result.”

The Plan in Action: All the planning and preparation paid off on Labor Day when, thanks to Hurricane Frances, MessagePlex took calls from Absent Answer’s clients for approximately four hours when the Florida company lost power. Thanks to preplanning and hard work by employees at both call centers, the transition was relatively seamless from the callers’ standpoint.

“Our clients were handled exactly as we would have handled them, with all their current data and instructions,” said Roth. “Even though the MessagePlex agents were not familiar with the clients, they read the instructions and handled the calls with no complaints, which is a basic way of gauging good service.”

Rather than forward all their lines, Absent Answer used MessagePlex primarily to ensure service was not interrupted for critical accounts, including medical and property management clients. Knowing that clients could be handled remotely allowed Absent Answer to remain minimally staffed and still ensure employees were safely away from the brunt of the storm.

Roth said, “You can’t assume you’ll have staff tough enough to ride it out, or that you’ll even be available. After all, trees fall and cars float. With the help provided by MessagePlex, our out-of-town clients got no excuses from us. The bottom line is that we did not lose any clients, local or national, from being down as we did with Hurricane Floyd.”

Parting Thoughts: Principals from both companies have important advice for other services who might be considering a disaster plan. Roth emphasized the need to work with carefully selected partners. “It’s very important to set up a long-term and trusting relationship with the other call center. You will be literally giving away your entire business, even if only in a dry run set-up. If the other center is unscrupulous, you could be giving away business forever.”

To Corrigan, the key is advance planning. “Don’t wait,” he said. “Start the process now. There are a lot of details to overcome that are not taken into consideration in the planning stages. Lay everything out including future growth potential and test, test, test.”

Roth echoed this sentiment, saying, “Be very sure that everyone can do what they say they can do. Do this monthly because with us, our phone company changed the lead time and pricing on the forwarding feature and never informed us.”

Harbin also agreed, adding, “Make sure there is enough time to get the information in the system so the agents can familiarize themselves with the accounts.” He also stressed the importance of technical expertise. “Have a tech person on-site that understands the system, Microsoft Access, and client import/export.”

Client service is the name of the game in the teleservices industry. When your clients know that you’ve taken steps to ensure their accounts will be handled well, regardless of what the future holds, they’ll be less likely to take their business elsewhere. Let prospects and clients alike know that you’ve taken steps to protect them. Roth said, “If possible, get contracts stating services are available even though they are not being used and billed for.” That step will send a positive message to prospects and pave the way for smoother billing when the back-up plan goes into effect.

Based on their experience with Frances (and subsequent threats from Ivan and Jeanne), MessagePlex will continue to serve as a back-up site for Absent Answer. “Obviously, hurricane season comes annually and presents a recurring need,” said Denman. “With good pre-planning, this technology could also allow for back-up service in case of other natural and man-made disasters.”

Gina R. George is a Certified Business Communicator (CBC) with more than 15 years of writing experience. Her articles have appeared in both trade and consumer publications. She currently serves as Marketing Director for MessagePlex/CMR, Inc. and can be contacted at george@cmrinc.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2005]

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