Communications Factors to Consider for Disaster Preparedness

By Alan Creighton

More than a month after Hurricane Sandy hit, reports show that telecom service disruptions were recorded in 158 counties and ten states stretching from Maine to Virginia; as many as 8 million customers were left without the ability to communicate, according to an FCC estimate. All the major service providers were hit: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all reported significant disruptions. Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), estimated that about 25 percent of wireless cell towers in the Northeast were knocked out during the storm, and some 911 emergency call centers were even disabled.

Hurricane Sandy was a reminder to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our businesses, and our call centers. While wireless and wired networks experienced downtime after Hurricane Sandy, services backed by geo-redundant architecture were able to stay up and running. Organizations unprepared for disasters often lose communication capabilities, which in turn jeopardizes sales opportunities, revenue, and valuable client contact. Every enterprise should take the time to ensure that it has a disaster recovery plan in place and that its provider is prepared to keep communications up and running. Here are three key factors to consider regarding your business communications before catastrophe strikes:

1) The Location of the Cloud. Though its services are virtual, the cloud is tied to a physical location along with the information stored there. As we saw after Hurricane Sandy, flooding knocked out several carriers’ switches in New York and New Jersey, leaving thousands of business lines down across the country. Businesses can avoid a breakdown in communications by simply choosing a provider that has a geographically dispersed network infrastructure with switches in more than one location. Geo-redundancy insulates businesses from having to experience the effects of a core network crash and prevents disruption in business communications. In the event of a switch outage, another location can serve as backup and thereby preserve uptime.

2) The Core Network Infrastructure. Providers that rely on Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) trunks for communication set businesses up for trouble in the wake of a disaster. TDM trunks are physically tied to a local switch, so if flooding knocks out the circuit, businesses can’t access their communication network. TDM trunks are a single point of failure because numbers tied to a TDM trunk are unable to easily move to another switch.

Hosted VoIP providers use the power of the Internet to deliver voice services and run with IP-based core network infrastructures that allow numbers to be instantly moved to a backup switch to process calls and maintain network uptime.

3) The Point of Access. By choosing cloud-based VoIP services, businesses can ensure that employees are able to continue business correspondence and access communications in a number of different ways. When a circuit goes down, users with hosted VoIP can reach their business line with a unified communications application by utilizing a Wi-Fi hotspot or a cellular voice or data network.

If you can access any form of a wired or wireless network, you can get to your business communications with inbound and outbound business identity dialing. Features like Unreachable Destination can also ensure that businesses can continue to communicate, even when the IP access circuit is out of operation, by enabling users to set an alternate phone number to which calls can be routed.

Other Benefits: Hosted contact centers also eliminate the downtime associated with software upgrades, hardware maintenance, and other outages. In addition to keeping your operation up and running reliably, cloud-based contact centers offer a number of other benefits that include virtual queues, reduced technical and operational costs, and the opportunity to build a nationwide team of US-based remote agents and supervisors. Many businesses that implement these contact center solutions generate an increase in revenue. Data released by Yankee Group shows that businesses can save up to 45 percent on the total cost of ownership by choosing a hosted solution instead of an on-premise service. The overall value-added benefits of hosted services are evident and driving market growth at rapid rates, with a predicted compound annual growth rate of 18 percent in 2013.

Hosted contact centers increase productivity with the ease of management and provisioning for multi-site, remote, and expanding businesses without the costs associated with in-house call centers or loss of quality often associated with outsourcing or offshoring. Businesses can also eliminate virtually all software, hardware, implementation, and recurring maintenance expenditures.

Businesses without these services found themselves without a way to communicate during the outages that followed Hurricane Sandy. VoIP technology is mature, and the features and benefits clearly outweigh TDM. Put your business communications in the cloud with a geo-redundant solution so that if disaster strikes, your business will stay up and running.

Alan Creighton is CEO of Momentum Telecom.

[From Connection Magazine April 2013]

Planning Is the Best Way to Minimize Disaster Impacts

By Donna Fluss

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, I was reminded of the importance of disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) planning, something that too many contact centers neglect. Most enterprise leaders agree that disaster recovery and business continuity planning is critical, but often budget constraints prevent organizations from making the necessary plans. Unfortunately, hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, floods, fires, and acts of terrorism remind us of how important it is to have strong DR and BC plans in place.

Preparing for a Disaster: The primary goal when preparing for a disaster is to build a plan to keep your contact center operating during a crisis. The strategy you choose will depend on your technical capabilities and resiliency, the number of sites and their geographical dispersion, the percentage of work that can be deferred in the short term without major business ramifications and serious customer dissatisfaction, and how much you are willing to spend to keep your business going in the event of a disaster. Here are a number of ways to prepare your contact center and limit the negative impact and cost of disasters:

  • Have geographically dispersed locations if possible. Set up business continuity routing plans to move interactions from an impacted site to its backup.
  • Invest in contact center infrastructure that is resilient and comes with full backup capabilities.
  • Invest in a cloud-based contact center infrastructure solution as your backup, but be sure it’s based in a different geography from your primary system.
  • Establish a business continuity plan with your carrier(s) that allows you to easily alter your routing scheme.
  • Be prepared to use self-service solutions as your primary customer interaction point for as long as half a day. This is not ideal, but if it becomes necessary, you should have an interactive voice response (IVR) application ready to be implemented. Build these environments and hope you’ll never have to use them.
  • If your contact center technology supports work-at-home agents, assign 20 percent of agents to be DR staff. Implement the technology needed in their homes, train them to use it, and test it once a quarter to make sure they know how it works. (Make sure they have the necessary bandwidth to handle calls and other types of customer interactions.)
  • If work-at-home is not an option and you don’t have a second site in a different geography, find an outsourcer in a different region that can provide backup agents and technology on short notice. The outsourcer’s agents must be trained and have availability to your systems and processes. To ensure they are ready, they should be tested every quarter.

Testing Is Key: In a worldwide benchmark study on contact center disaster recovery, DMG found that only 36.7 percent of companies were confident that they could operate during a disaster without serious impact on service quality and the customer experience. This percentage is actually low, because a majority of contact centers either do not have DR and BC plans or are not keeping them up-to-date.

This same study revealed that only 4.7 percent of companies test their DR and BC plans on a monthly basis. This leaves 95.3 percent of contact centers at risk of a major meltdown in an emergency, which is not a position anyone wants to be in. The best plans won’t help if your staff does not know what to do and the technology does not work. So, it’s essential to run a full business continuity test once a year and test various aspects of the plan on a quarterly basis.

Final Thoughts: Nobody likes to think about disasters, but whether they are weather-related, such as a hurricane, or manmade, such as a terrorist attack, they do happen. Not every company will be hit by unexpected events, but all contact centers should be prepared so they can mitigate the impact on their customers and bottom line without putting their employees at risk.

Donna Fluss is the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, a provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting. Contact Donna at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine December 2012]

Disaster-Proofing Your Call Center

By Nicolas D’Alleva

Disasters that may potentially disrupt your call center can manifest themselves in different ways. In today’s world of heightened customer expectations and real-time tweeting and blogging about service interruptions that could tarnish your image, disaster-proofing your call center operations must be an essential part of your business strategy. Broadly, disasters can be classified as 1) semi-predictable and 2) completely unpredictable in terms of the impact of the disaster.

Semi-predictable disasters include power outages, hardware failure, and weather-related damage. In general, it is easier to plan for continuity of service in such cases, as most call centers have redundant power, redundant data storage, migration procedures, and equipment that allows off-premise agents to interact with customers in the event of the transportation difficulties that are common with weather related disasters.

Unpredictable disasters, such as a fire or a terrorist attack, are more difficult to plan for. Similarly, disasters may be localized to your call center alone or may be more widespread and affect an entire city, state, or even country. Regardless of the classification or the reason for the disaster, your customers expect you to be omnipresent and impervious to the unpredictable. Is this fair? Probably not, but as long as you know you are doing everything possible to thwart the inevitable, the uptime statistics are in your favor. It all starts with effective disaster response.

Effective disaster response includes two parts: 1) Ensuring that the highest priority activities continue uninterrupted and 2) reverting back to normal operations as quickly as possible.

Part 1: Prioritization for Disaster Recovery

The first step in disaster-proofing your call center is prioritizing the various components in your call center, since it won’t be possible to offer all services and meet all SLAs (service level agreements) while operating during the recovery phase.

Nature of Calls and Types of Customers: The first step in disaster recovery planning is to take an inventory of the various types of customer calls (or services) that your call center receives. After this, you need to identify the critical calls and the not-so critical calls based on the business objectives of the call center. If there are different levels of customers, such as platinum level, gold level, and so on, then you would need to prioritize these as well.

Once this has been completed, identify which calls and services cannot be stopped (even for a few hours), which ones can be recovered within a day, and which ones can be stopped until your operations are back to normal. A cost benefit analysis of loss of customer satisfaction compared to the cost of recovery options can help to make this prioritization exercise more fruitful.

Hardware Equipment: Once you have an idea of the reduced volume of transactions to be serviced during the recovery phase, it is easy to identify the components in your call center that require redundancy to be built in. While designing the network architecture of the call center, it is essential to identify the level of redundancy that you’ll need for each of the elements in your call center. It is also important to have adequate backup power available in the form of UPS and generators.

Vendors: You will need to build in redundancies at the vendor level as well; try to utilize at least a couple of vendors for your telephone services. This will ensure that a disaster at a single vendor site does not totally shut down your operations. You may also want to enter into preventive maintenance contracts and service contracts with your hardware vendors, so that an equipment failure does not result in long downtimes.

Call Agents: Depending on the skill sets needed to serve the high priority calls, you may decide to have a group of backup agents who can work from home to handle your calls in case your location is affected by the disaster.

Role of Management: You should have a disaster recovery team identified and trained on the necessary steps to be taken immediately after a disaster. Specific personnel should be identified to:

  • Inform and coordinate agents and their activities
  • Inform vendors and request service and support
  • Inform financial institutions to activate your emergency line of credit
  • Activate emergency scripts in the call center
  • Coordinate communication to stakeholders (such as organizations and callers) on the measures taken and alternate channels of service delivery provided (such as website, email, etc.)

Part 2: Getting Back to Normal

Once the immediate response is taken care of and the recovery phase operations have stabilized, your next focus must be getting back to normal operations. Filing insurance claims is an important step in this phase. Top-level management should meet to chart out activities that need to be performed in order to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Once a plan has been prepared, it is important to communicate that to your clients so they continue to place their trust in your call center.

Nicolas D’Alleva is the owner of Specialty Answering Service (SAS), a global telephone answering service and call center provider.

[From Connection Magazine September 2012]

Is Your Business Disaster-Proof?

By George Mwangi

With the rise of extreme weather in recent years, have you given thought how your business would survive a major disaster? Many companies put off developing a contingency plan until the last minute and unfortunately pay the price. Taking the time to set up systems to ensure that your company is able to function in the face of unforeseen circumstance is a critical part of business planning.

So what exactly is disaster planning? Well, there are a number of components. We’ll look at some of the most common.

Succession Planning/Chain of Command: Although you never want to think about getting ill or passing away suddenly, this is an important issue to consider when it comes to your business. You should have a documented and clear succession plan, naming individuals who would step up in the event you become temporarily or permanently unable to run your company.

Succession planning is not just about designating a new chairman or CEO; it also ensures that your brand image and the experience your customers have grown to expect will continue uninterrupted. Therefore, take some time to think about who you would want to run the company in your absence and distribute a copy of your succession plan to your senior management team.

Customer Service/Call Routing: Another key area to think about is customer service. In the event of a storm or power outage, will your customers be greeted by a busy line and endless hold times? This is seriously damaging to the customer experience and your company as a whole. However, there are options to avoid this scenario.

Many companies outsource their entire customer service operations to dedicated companies. These outsourced or “virtual” customer service centers have a number of benefits built in. In addition to allowing the business to maintain an efficient, low-maintenance customer service option, they have built-in functionality in case of emergencies.

The best companies have more than one office, preferably located in different states. This allows the different locations to cover for each other and does not limit your ability to service your customers due to regional weather issues.

Another option is to use a customer service firm in the event of an emergency only. With a virtual call center, you can set up a plan to route calls from your office to their lines in the case of an emergency. This can usually be done by calling into a specified number and entering a specific code, which will then divert the calls. Using a company outside of your geographical location provides assurance that your calls will still be answered if your location is hit with heavy storms or a natural disaster.

Cash Flow: Last but not least is ensuring continued cash flow through your business in the event of an emergency. In some circumstances, this means having an ample reserve set aside to cover customer defaults, business expansion, and miscellaneous unforeseen expenses. It is always important not to run on too tight of a margin, as this allows you to be flexible in meeting the needs of your company.

In addition, it is important to have emergency and long-term contingency plans in place. If a warehouse is destroyed or you experience a bad sales year, would you have ample funds to recover or see you through the dry spell? Planning for unforeseen financial situations, as well as natural disasters and management shakeups, is a smart move and one that may make all the difference in the your company’s ability to weather the storm.

As the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared.”

George Mwangi is general manager at Call Desk Inc, a privately owned customer service organization based outside Portland, Oregon.

[From Connection Magazine April 2011]

Improving Crisis Management in Call Centers Using Desktop Integration

By John Broderick

Recently, while making travel arrangements, I called my travel agent’s customer service line. On hold for the better part of an hour, I listened to Muzak and intermittent assurances that my call was, indeed, very important. I experienced the same dilemma everyone does in this situation: “Should I call back later in hopes that the call volume has died down?” or “Should I wait this out so this time is not wasted?  It might only be a minute more.” Then it hit me. As this was during the height of the swine flu panic, they were most likely flooded with inquiries about air travel safety, added precautions, cancellations, and the like.

A majority of consumer service brands employ call centers. Even in today’s world of online transactions, sometimes you just have to speak to a “live person” to resolve an issue. In addition, when there is a full-blown crisis, no matter what the reason, call centers can become overwhelmed, less able to provide the level of customer service they strive for under normal circumstances. In order for call centers to handle “moments” of crisis, they must first be running as efficiently and effectively as possible. During crises, they need the ability to adapt quickly, provide agents with up-to-date information, and deliver a high level of customer service, particularly regarding immediate conditions. So what can call centers do to better handle different types of calls during periods of emergency and maintain the same high quality of customer service when it is most needed?

Desktop Integration and Automation – The Optimal Solution: At the heart of a call center, regardless of its purpose, are systems that assist management and call center representatives in managing their calls and providing necessary customer services. To provide quick and accurate support, agents need current and pertinent information regarding the caller and their issue, but valuable time is too often wasted by switching between applications and application screens, waiting for information to load, and, when necessary, calling in additional resources. Meanwhile, the caller is getting increasingly frustrated and forming negative associations about the company. This perception is compounded during times of crisis when customers are likely struggling with a negative experience, potentially more easily angered or panicked, and in need of immediate resolution of an issue. Companies using desktop integration can respond to these periods of crises by deploying new information from other systems, automating new processes, or providing pop-ups that walk agents step-by-step through relevant procedures.

Desktop integration defines and streamlines business processes, integrating systems where they are used – at the desktop. Desktop integration is an effective approach to organize complex work environments, simplify processes, and reduce the time required for knowledge workers to complete tasks. In addition, desktop integration is noninvasive and requires no server-side integration, thereby reducing integration costs, eliminating the need for additional, complex infrastructure, and lowering implementation times from months to weeks.

We all know how complicated and costly it is to change or cancel travel plans, so consider what it must have been like for travelers booked on flights to Mexico when the swine flu epidemic began. As agents working for the airlines and travel providers during this time can attest, anything that enabled them to quickly access necessary information and resolve issues would have been a godsend. This is just one example – all companies employing desktop integration would benefit from the same solutions, not only for the purposes of automating processes for regular call times but also to quickly adapt during periods of crisis. Your call center agents’ productivity and the level of customer service they can provide can only be improved by streamlining processes at the user level. Investing in solutions to integrate your disparate applications and automate necessary processes will reduce the time it takes to get an issue resolved and, more importantly, build customer brand loyalty.

With more than thirty years’ experience in business and finance, John Broderick joined Cicero Inc. in 2001 to manage the company’s global finance functions. He can be reached at 919-380-5000.

[From Connection Magazine March 2010]

Mind Your Business: Providing Disaster Relief

By Steve Michaels

Q. We generate a lot of extra revenue whenever there is a hurricane, power outage, or snowstorm. Is there any way that we can capitalize on all the work we do for these clients during natural disasters?

A. That’s a great question and I have a great answer from Wil Porter from Ansaphone Service in Massachusetts:

The day after a snowstorm, tornado, power outage, or flood you have a great opportunity to reinforce or introduce clients to the great value you bring to the table. I know many of you are literally exhausted from the onslaught that just happened, but the advantages could far outweigh this extra effort.

This is the time to call your large clients as well as those clients that used you more than what would be typical for that day, telling them that you wanted to make sure that they have recovered from the storm. Are they all dug out, above water, with power restored?  Do they need you to continue to provide services for them until things are back to normal? Review the types and number of calls received. Most calls received during a disaster will be far different from those received during normal circumstances. These messages can provide great insight and lead to recommendations of other services and solutions.

A good introduction might be, “We should review your instructions and obtain additional information in case this kind of thing happens again.” Some other suggestions to consider:

Coordination: “If there is a weather-related event coming, who should be called to coordinate information?”

Facilities: “Can we store the names and numbers of people to contact in the event that your management staff needs to reach building managers to alert them of problems or receive updates?”

Call out protocols: “Some of your employees, especially new ones, may not remember the protocol for reporting absences. Let us know how to handle those calls more efficiently for you.”

Snow line: You can suggest setting up a “snow line” for employees to call to find out if they are supposed work.

As Wil concluded in his email, “We are not just one less thing to worry about, but one great thing that they can count on!”

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com for questions.

[From Connection Magazine April 2009]

A Disaster Recovery Solution

By Bill Curtin IV

John D. Rockefeller’s pragmatic view of disaster recovery – “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity” – is one which holds true for today’s call center industry just as it did for the oil industry of the late 1800s. Even so, actually turning a disaster into a business opportunity involves much more than reacting to a difficult situation when it occurs.

The first step towards disaster recovery is disaster preparedness – identifying all of the emergencies that could confront a call center and putting plans in place to deal with them in a quick, efficient, and effective manner.

Most call center clients expect more today than ever from their call centers. Many even require SLAs (Service Level Agreements) and proof that adequate disaster recovery plans are in place. In the event of an emergency, they want their calls to be answered.

The three most important resources for a call center to consider are the inbound telephone lines, the call center’s client data for properly processing calls, and the labor to answer the calls. A good disaster recovery plan addresses all three of these resources.

In order for a call center to take calls, calls must have an inbound path to the ACD (Automated Call Distribution) system. There are many disasters that can do away with this inbound phone path, and it can be very challenging to reroute the calls to a backup location.

Using the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), a call center’s options are limited by the services its phone company can provide. The call backup and call forwarding services that many phone companies provide vary greatly, so considering backup options when shopping for phone service is extremely important.

Alternative routing or call overflow are common product names that many PSTN phone companies use for describing their call forwarding service. How these services work will also vary by service provider. Usually these services will allow a call center to forward all of its DID numbers to a single 800 toll-free number if phone service goes out.

If a call center subscribes to an alternative routing service that forwards calls to a toll-free number, it can add more flexibility to its phone routing by having the 800 number reside at a RespOrg (Responsible Organization) instead having the 800 number resident within its phone company. The services that different RespOrgs provide also vary – some allow a call center to redirect calls to its 800 number using a website, while others require the subscriber call center to call in to make the forwarding request.

Sometimes trunk groups can be used to forward overflow calls to a backup location. Every phone company uses different names for these services, and just finding the name of the service can be one of the bigger challenges.

Many call centers already are taking advantage of VoIP/SIP phone service providers – for a number of reasons and in equally as many ways. One advantage of SIP (Session Initiation Protocol – an Internet transmission method) providers is that they can have DID lines from many area codes terminate to one IP (Internet Protocol) address.

Many call centers can realize a cost savings using SIP services instead of using dedicated phone circuits to transport their DID traffic. These SIP phone providers also can aid in a call center’s disaster recovery plans.

When a call center gets its phone service from a SIP provider, the phone service is sent to an IP (Internet Protocol) address. To move the phone service to a call center’s backup facility, the SIP service provider directs the calls to another Internet IP address. These IP addresses can be changed manually, through a website, or can be set up to failover automatically.

The newer VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technologies are allowing call centers to “collocate” their hardware to off-premise data centers. When the hardware is housed off-site, the entire staff can connect to the system like remote agents.

In addition to easing worries over power constraints, backup generator power, cooling, and Internet connectivity, collocation removes many of the worries of disaster recovery planning because the datacenter has already addressed them. Even if you are using PSTN phone lines, a collocation facility can provide you with greater reliability. Data centers have fiber SONNET rings that connect them to the phone company’s CO (central office). For a reasonable fee, datacenters will allow you to run your PSTN phone lines from the CO to the datacenter on their SONNET ring, which provides two paths for your phone calls to travel from the CO to the datacenter. If one of the paths disappears, you won’t notice any loss of service.

With this network architecture, the main disaster concern for a call center is maintaining agent workstations. Since SIP connections can be initiated from any workstation with a live Internet connection, this is a powerful operational model for reducing a call center’s risk in disaster situations.

Based on a similar principle, real-time data backup can be a powerful disaster recovery tool for any call center. Utilizing existing ISDN or T1 telephony connections, an off-premise data center can receive a live update whenever there is a change to a call center’s primary database. Several software solutions exist that allow database backup over the Internet. Instead of doing a full database backup, these backup software solutions backup the real-time changes. Every time a change occurs, the data is sent to the backup database through the Internet. The backup databases can be located in scattered and separate locations that are often geographically removed from the area that would be potentially impacted by an emergency.

In the event of a disaster that interrupts the primary database or ACD, service can be restored within minutes by turning on your backup server at the data center. With service rerouted to the backup server, an agent can connect and process calls without noticing any difference from being connected to the primary server.

Reliability is fundamental to the reputation and success of any call center. Being fully prepared for a disaster, with devoted resources and plans of action in place, ensures that when a disaster occurs, the visible effect to the call center’s clients and callers is as minimal as possible.

When a call center’s clients realize that even though a disaster has occurred, their service has not been affected in any way, the call center has turned that disaster into a good client retention opportunity.

Bill Curtin IV is director of corporate IT services for Amtelco and manages Amtelco’s hosted services enterprise offerings.

[From Connection Magazine June 2008]

Is Global Warming a Threat to the Call Center Industry?

By Steve Michaels

I remember picking up a USA today last summer and reading that the entire stock of air conditioners was sold out during that summer’s heat, which topped 112 degrees. I also remember that Costco ran out of snowblowers right after the “Snowstorm of the Century” hit the northeast part of the country last year. And just last month the Midwest was hit with an ice storm. Based on communication on industry list-serves, teleservice call center owners were again unprepared. It seems that some of us have a hard time getting ready for emergencies or disasters in advance and only react after the fact.

Leading scientists from all over the world say that if we, as a planet, continue along the current path we are taking, sea levels will continue to rise, in some places up to twenty feet. For those along the coasts, this could foretell impending disaster. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize, shows icebergs melting at an alarming rate as one of the examples of this weather pattern change. Scientists have been stating that it will take centuries for this phenomenon to take place, but every year they have had to change their timeline.

“The weather is a changin’ out thar,” and few seem to be concerned. I guess we are all waiting for that 112-degree heat or a pile of snow to fall upon us before we do something. The same seems to be true for the call center industry. Although disaster recovery solutions are available, few are interested in implementing them – until it is too late.

Regardless whether you are in a disaster prone area, such as the entire East Coast, most of Florida, and the West Coast, or in a seemingly safe and secure area, this message may be for you. Here are some tips you may want to consider if you want to protect your business investment:

The Buddy System: Find someone who you trust with the same kind of equipment as yours and share your data and customer base. If either one of the systems goes down, then the other can take over. But a better solution would be…

The Multi-Buddy System or “Disaster Recovery” System: This buddy system works even better if there are multiple call centers working together. With two centers working together, one could not immediately pickup 100 percent of the traffic from the downed system. However, with multiple partners, the load of one call center in crisis could be much more easily absorbed if several call centers share in the excess. Even more prudent would be for these call centers to jointly purchase a system to handle all of their call traffic and install it in an off-premise location. Then calls could automatically be rerouted should one center go down.

Manufacturer Backup: Some vendors offer a hosted solution for their clients. This can be used for 24/7 operation or for emergency backup. One vendor is going to make off-site database backup a standard part of their system package.

Remote Agents: One suggestion that many call centers have started to incorporate is using remote agents. I have touted this option for years, but I have largely met with ambivalence from call center owners and managers who balk at the idea of their staff located away from the office. It seems they fear that they will lose control. However, it makes great business sense that if you are hit with any kind of disaster or emergency, even the flu, having your agents located away from your office is preferable.

I presume that you are now thinking that this guy in Montana is a nut. Well, I’m in Montana for a reason. I have been talking about changes for years now because we are going to have changes in our weather, as realized by the recent Hurricane Katrina. Some businesses don’t exist any more because they didn’t have a disaster recovery plan in place.

As we move into this new year of 2008, you may want to spend time and ponder what this guy in Montana has to say about the old adage, “Being forewarned is being forearmed.”  Don’t wait until the temperature reaches 112 degrees or you are buried up to your eyeballs in snow before you do something to protect the future of your call center.

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing, Inc. and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com. His website is www.tasmarketing.com.

[From Connection Magazine January 2008]

Service Recovery – The Art of Damage Control

By Nancy Friedman, The Telephone Doctor

We all know the importance of customer service. Those of us who are in this industry normally are the ones who genuinely want to help the customer. It’s sort of a “high” for us when things go right. But what happens when it all goes wrong? How do you recover?

Service recovery is simply the art of damage control. Every industry has damage control. Think about Hollywood; poor Tom Cruise, for example. He said something negative about Brooke Shields and suddenly everyone was out to get him. His PR team went into damage control mode. What about when things happen in government? Big-time damage control shifts into gear.

It’s the same when customer service goes wrong. Think “damage control.” What can we do over and above in order to gain this customer back? To have them swearing by us and not at us?

Empowerment. That’s the number one step of service recovery. Each employee needs some form of empowerment. They need to know how far they can go to help the customer. Remember our Telephone Doctor rule: It should never take two people to give good customer service. Any time you escalate a call to a supervisor, you are losing ground. The more employees a customer speaks with, the harder service recovery becomes.

Humor will only work when you have a rational customer. And normally by the time you’re into service recovery, the rationale is lost. However, what we do know is that most customers respond in kind to gentle humor.

One of the worst things you can say to a customer is “I know how you feel.” There is simply no way in the world anyone can know how someone else feels. That particular statement will get you in a lot of hot water. Drop this phrase now. Even worse is saying, “I know exactly how you feel.” You can say, “I can only imagine how you feel.” But it’s best that you don’t walk in the customer’s shoes. It won’t be a good fit, I promise you.

True service recovery occurs when you’ve helped the customer and you can tell that they’re satisfied, that they’re back in the groove with your company again. It’s when they go from screaming to loving you, and it can be done.

To do this, you need a whole lot of empathy. You need to listen; you need to care. These are the tools for service recovery. You need to go that “one step beyond.” You need to do something they’re not expecting, something that bowls them over. It might mean taking a loss, but if you’re really looking to save that customer, you’re willing to take that loss. At the end of the call, they’ll be so happy and so smitten with your response, they’ll be singing your praises to all their friends.

Service recovery is special. You see, good customer service is expected. That’s nothing new or special. You’re supposed to give good customer service. What’s the big deal? But often it all hits the fan and you’ve got one customer who is just really fired up. Mad, bad, screaming, totally out of it. That’s when your service recovery needs to kick into gear.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO. Nancy is the author of four best-selling books.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]

Redundancy Solutions Maximize Call Centers Uptime

By David Weiss

With the ongoing migration of voice communications toward server-based facilities and IP networks, today’s call centers are susceptible to all of the maladies of the network world, including hacker attacks, viruses, and Trojan Horses. While many companies have embraced redundancy in the data center, few have recognized the need to incorporate redundant systems into their voice technologies. As the corporate world hinges on a constant stream of data and voice communications, organizations – and especially call centers – must provide for the highest degree of fault tolerance to maintain these vital links to clients, customers, and employees.

Historically, the resiliency of the voice network meant disaster-planning budgets were focused in other areas of concern. Now, call centers are deploying server-based PBXs, VoIP solutions, conference bridges, and related systems. Providing new capabilities at a fraction of the cost, these services are increasingly critical to day-to-day business operations and, as such, they demand expected levels of uptime. Because these are built more frequently from a combination of hardware and software vendors, however, the likelihood is increasing that these systems experience failures.

Failures can occur at any level. Redundancy solutions are a key part of planning for the inevitable. Fail-safe options on every level, including failover servers, diverse phone lines, media storage, and hot sites can all minimize unscheduled downtime and prevent real disasters.

Minimizing Failures on the Line Side: A highly available solution attempts to eliminate single points of failure in all aspects of a system’s design. To minimize failure options, network planners need to evaluate both link redundancy and hardware redundancy. Carriers can also provide diversity and avoidance to help minimize risks.

Done at both the local and long-distance levels, diversity refers to redundant services, and avoidance ensures that redundant services do not share common facilities. Additionally, loop diversity provides two redundant circuits from a local point-of-presence (POP) to your call center. POP diversity – local links originating from multiple wire centers, or POPs – is an ideal solution. Interoffice diversity provides the same level of service between wire centers.

Diversity services may or may not include the customer premise equipment necessary to switch between redundant links. Protection switching for redundant T-1 or DS-3 circuits is either provided by the carrier or purchased and installed by the call center. Any service degradation or interruption is automatically detected with switch over to a spare circuit. Protection switching is either 1:1, with a standby circuit for each primary circuit, or 1:N, with a spare circuit for one of several circuits. Even with VoIP solutions, any gateway to the public switched network involves local loops and carrier services, and it is essential that this critical link to customers is not overlooked.

Minimizing Failures on the Equipment Side: The migration of telephony services to a server-based platform has prompted the wide acceptance of IP-based systems. Advantages, such as an open and flexible architecture, standardized components, multiple sources, and lower costs mean servers are now common for call center systems, voicemail, call recorders, and other voice technologies. Although processors, memory, storage, power supplies, telephony boards, operating systems, and application software are supplied by “best of breed” vendors, it is, however, the end user who must ensure that all the pieces work together seamlessly.

A critical metric for each piece is its availability, or readiness to perform its stated function at any given time. To achieve the best availability possible, system engineers must look at maximizing reliability and minimizing both scheduled and unscheduled downtime. Redundancy is the key to providing both the maximum reliability and the minimum repair time. Redundancy is commonplace for products at the component level that are most likely to fail, such as disk drives, power supplies, and other electro-mechanical items. Additionally, inexpensive redundant discs (RAID) and power supplies are standard with most systems for telephony services.

For more complex applications, system level redundancy needs to be evaluated. With hot standby systems, two identical systems are installed. The standby system continuously monitors the health of the primary system and, upon detecting any failures, automatically switches the standby system into service. Deploying two systems also allows for the performance of scheduled maintenance with minimal interruption, as one server is upgraded while the other is in service. And, if a planned upgrade or new software installation goes awry, the organization has an immediate, graceful fallback.

Redundancy switches essentially perform the same function as a patch panel, but they do so automatically and simultaneously for all circuits. They operate on the physical layer, moving the actual wires from phone lines and operator instruments to telephony boards in the system. With IP phone systems, switching is only required for the phone line side. As the central component of a fault tolerant solution, the redundancy switch itself cannot represent a single point of failure because magnetic latching relays provide a continuous mechanical connection in all circumstances.

Although redundancy servers are optimal solutions, several issues need to be considered. Databases must be synchronized so all configurations, securities, and call logs remain identical. Licensing is also a factor. If redundant systems share the same licenses, either they need to have the dongles switched or they require an add-on module to support an automatic redundancy switchover.

Conclusion: For call centers, voice technology is essential for effective corporate communications and customer service. To maintain these systems and ensure their optimal operation, organizations must consider the level of fault tolerance required and examine how redundancy solutions can help meet these objectives. Deploying diversity and avoidance services, as well as protection switching, will help minimize failures on the line side. In addition, standby systems and redundancy switches will mitigate the risk of failures on the equipment side. Unplanned downtime is clearly not acceptable, and redundancy solutions maximize uptime and allow voice communications to continue in the event of system failures.

David Weiss has nearly twenty years of experience in product management, business development, and sales and marketing. He is an expert in the remote site management technology industry. David serves as the president and CEO of Dataprobe, a remote site management and monitoring solutions provider.

[From Connection Magazine June 2007]