Tag Archives: Disaster Planning and Recovery

The Critical Role Hospital Call Centers Play During and After a Catastrophe

By Nicole Limpert

The ever-increasing threats from natural and human-caused disasters have made the use of disaster response systems a necessity. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents live in areas rated as having a moderate to very high risk of experiencing a natural disaster: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, hail, wildfires, and earthquakes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report titled “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2018” identified twenty-seven shootings as active shooter incidents, which resulted in eighty-five deaths and 128 people wounded (excluding the shooters).

When disaster strikes, both local and national call centers provide critical communication services to help coordinate first responders and rescue teams, organize relief efforts, enable communication between loved ones, and support communities during recovery.

Disaster Planning

Disasters often occur without warning. Weather events, mass violence, and other incidents can cause an outage or strain communication systems. However, organizations can formulate a disaster preparedness and business continuity plan in anticipation of a catastrophic event. Hospital call centers are a critical component to any disaster preparedness plan because they often become a communications hub during an emergency.

National, state, and local agencies often work with hospitals to develop a plan for coordinating call centers. They identify partnerships with organizations such as 9-1-1 and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to determine how to integrate each call center into a larger communication network for efficient allocation of services and dissemination of public health information.

The use of technology enables call centers to execute their disaster preparedness and business continuity plans quickly and efficiently. Automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR), uniform call distribution (UCD), and other communication software can automate call routing systems. Leveraging automatic notifications and critical alerts helps to speed communications and shorten reaction times.

Disaster Communications

Methodist Medical Center of Illinois, part of Unity Point Health Methodist, located in the heart of Peoria, Illinois, includes a 330-bed hospital with almost 600 board-certified physicians. 

To ensure the safety of patients and staff, the technology used by the call center at Methodist helps to prepare them for any type of situation. By using a customizable critical alert system, operators can quickly contact multiple people when various disaster and code calls come through their center.

When an emergency notification is needed, an operator triggers the alert by simply selecting a group to notify and typing in the alert message. This broadcasts the message to the appropriate personnel via each recipient’s preferred contact method. This helps ensure that hospital personnel can respond to each situation as quickly as possible.

The flexible system allows the call center manager to determine whether each type of notification requires a response from the person who receives an alert. While a reply and estimated time of arrival is required from someone responding to a disaster, a reply may not be needed from a staff member on the leadership team who is using their real-time monitor to oversee the situation. Managers can view the estimated time of arrival for each person and determine if additional personnel need notification. Access to their web-based, real-time monitor can even occur from home should an alert occur in the middle of the night.

Cloud Technology and Virtual Servers

Communications failure is not an option during a disaster. Having the ability to route calls to another center in the event of an emergency is crucial. For example, if a call center is physically located in an area that has become inaccessible or damaged due to a catastrophe, calls can route to operators off-site, using cloud technology on a virtual server. A single virtual server, located anywhere in the country, can bring call centers together to operate seamlessly, even if they all use different PBX telephone systems.

Using web-based call center communication software, any computer may become a secure, professional telephone agent station accessible from the internet. Operators located in a different center or home-based agents handle the calls, and all the tools used by in-house operators are accessible to these virtual agents.

Hospitals and clinics that are part of a larger healthcare enterprise use this technology to provide backup call handling within their own system. Rossi Fraenkel, business analytics team lead for Allina Health in Minneapolis, Minnesota, comments, “In the event that any of our other clinics were to have a power outage or go down, those calls roll to us at the contact center. We provide our organization with a really good, strategic value. It’s absolutely critical that we take calls no matter what.”

Disaster Recovery and Relief

Hotlines managed by agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provide callers with assistance related to government disaster aid, insurance claims, and home repairs.

Hospital call centers experience an influx of calls from people inquiring about hospitalizations of loved ones, safety advice, and help for themselves. Individuals who witness or experience a catastrophic event often face negative effects from it. Coping with the shock of a disaster can make someone fearful, confused, and suffer from anxiety.

Call center agents can connect callers with disaster crisis counseling to help people affected by traumatic events. Callers who are patients of a healthcare organization that participates in telehealth may be able to take advantage of instant, secure video access to mental health professionals.

Summary

Including hospital call centers in a coordinated call center system is crucial when developing a disaster preparedness and recovery plan. Establishing a comprehensive policy may require a considerable time commitment and thoughtful input from a variety of agencies and organizations. However, the effects of organized communication and efficient use of community resources during a crisis help save lives and speed recovery efforts.

Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.

Lockdown Initiatives

By Kathy Sisk

In my forty years in the call center industry, I have gone through many challenges, but none as distressing as in the past year. We can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can be intentional to make wise use of our time. Yes, we should relax and have fun when we can, but it doesn’t pay our bills. Therefore, balance is essential to move forward.

Here are some items for call center owners and clients to consider during lockdown:

  • Get your house in order. Not your living quarters, but your business. Organize your office, your desk, your laptop, and your thoughts. 
  • Consider relocating staff to work from home. Sure, it’s a hassle, but when you are not able to pay your overhead, the hassle is a moot point.
  • If required, get permission to go to the office and grab those PCs, headsets, and anything else you need. None of us knows what to expect, so it is best to think about the worst-case scenario and plan for it. 
  • If your infrastructure is not already in the cloud, work with a vender who can get you there. If you have an outbound operation, there are reliable resources that can get you up and running in less than an hour.
  • Relocate staff in an area they can work from. Several centers I work with rented a house where their employees live and work from. 
  • If your staff is unable to process calls remotely, use the downtime to create curriculum and train your employees to learn as they wait to return to work. 
  • Spend time to generate additional campaign opportunities and set up the campaigns now in preparation for when restrictions ease. 

These are some of the ideas I have incorporated into my company, and fortunately we have not been affected financially as others have. In fact, I have hired additional employees to cover the growth my company experienced during the lockdowns. Proudly, my staff is working full-time, generating sales, setting up campaigns, and onboarding centers with mostly at-home agents. 

Taking these steps will help us now and prepare us for whatever the future may hold.

[Due to increased business demands, this is Kathy’s final column for Connections Magazine. Please thank her for the scores of articles she’s written for us over the years.]

Kathy Sisk, founder and president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc., is a trainer and consultant, contributing thirty-five years of expertise to the telemarketing, sales, and customer service industries.

Responding to Call Traffic Fluctuations



You Can’t Schedule for the Unexpected, but That’s No Excuse to Be Unprepared

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Traffic at many call centers fluctuates with the weather, affecting some centers more so than others. Of course, non-weather-related events can also impact call traffic. This includes natural disasters, pandemics, riots, the threat of violence, media-produced frenzies—and the list goes on with as much variety as our imaginations can conjure up.

Although some traffic fluctuations occur with predictable regularity, other call traffic spurts strike with little warning. What’s a call center to do?

Deal with It the Best You Can 

The first impulse in responding to higher traffic than you’re prepared for is to work faster, cut out all nonessential tasks, and answer calls with greater intention. This helps . . . a bit . . . for a while. You may tap non-phone staff to put on a headset and get to work. Cutting breaks and shortening lunches emerges as a tempting thought, but don’t give in to that temptation. Asking staff to extend shifts and work overtime is another approach many call centers pursue. Sometimes this becomes mandatory. It helps to get calls answered, but employee morale takes a hit.

An optional strategy is to ignore the escalating number of calls in queue and just process whatever calls you can while working at your normal pace. If the call is important, the caller will hold or call back . . . at least you hope so. Regardless, customer sentiment will take a hit.

Intentionally Overstaff 

Given this situation, call center managers may intentionally over-hire and overschedule. That provides a nice buffer to deal with traffic peaks and longer-term surges. The side effect of this well-intended strategy is that during times of normal traffic levels, you’re either paying for unproductive work or your staff isn’t getting as many hours as they wish. Neither outcome is a good one.

Throttle Incoming Calls 

A third solution entertained by anxious call center managers is to reduce the number of incoming calls during high-traffic situations. One method is to provide a busy signal to callers. A second approach is to play a recording asking them to try later. A third possibility is to allow them to schedule a callback. Of course, for the callback solution to work requires that you’re not still dealing with the high-traffic situation when it comes time to make that return phone call.

Overflow to Another Location

If you’ve concluded that the first three options aren’t good ones, you’re right. If your call center is part of a multilocation operation, an easy solution is to send excess calls to another center in your network. For this to be a viable solution, however, requires that the other location is not suffering from the same malady.

Some multilocation call centers automatically route calls from one location to another based on incoming traffic and agent availability. In these cases, the overall traffic is self-regulating, which means that unexpected high call volume coming into one center will impact all call centers in the network. One center, therefore, can drag all the others down.

Outsource to Another Call Center

Another consideration is to form an arrangement with an outsource call center to take your overflow calls. Not only is this a great solution for high-traffic scenarios, but it also works well for understaffing. You can establish whatever events you want to trigger an overflow situation. It might be the number of calls in queue, the current wait time, or number of abandons.

Just as with sending overflow calls to another call center within your organization, select an outsource call center that’s geographically separated from your location to reduce the risk of them suffering from the same scenario as your call center. 

Conclusion

Though there is no ideal way to deal with unexpected call traffic, there are steps you can take to reduce the negative impact on both callers and staff. But don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis to consider solutions—plan now before you’re swamped with calls.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

Why Hackers Target Medical Records Instead of Credit Cards



By Nicole Limpert

Despite the care most of us take to protect our credit card information, credit card fraud is the most common form of identity theft in the United States. According to a report from Javelin Strategy & Research, 15.4 million consumers were victims of identity theft or fraud in 2016, which cost US consumers more than 16 billion dollars.

However, cyber criminals increasingly target electronic protected health information (ePHI) because hackers can get a premium price for this personal information on the dark web.

Sold to the Highest Bidder

Raw credit card numbers—those that are missing PIN and user information—are worth a dollar or less each on the dark web. More complete credit card records that include personal information command a higher price—up to thirty dollars each, depending on the country of origin. However, the most valuable prize for fraudsters is someone’s medical record. Estimates vary, but in general health records consistently sell for seventy to ninety dollars each. Some hackers claim to sell blocks of thousands of records and receive over one hundred dollars per individual record.

Historically, healthcare data breaches were the result of internal staff actions (both accidental and intentional), but the Ponemon Institute’s Fifth Annual Benchmark Study on Privacy & Security of Healthcare Data in 2015 discovered that the primary reason for healthcare data breaches was due to criminal attacks.

The report states, “Employee negligence and lost or stolen devices still result in many data breaches, according to the findings. However, one of the trends we are seeing is a shift of data breaches—from accidental to intentional—as criminals are increasingly targeting and exploiting healthcare data.”

Why ePHI Is So Valuable

It is estimated that the global healthcare industry will be worth 8.7 trillion dollars by 2020. Cyber criminals are cashing in by using stolen patient data primarily for insurance fraud, medication fraud, and financial fraud.

The Identity Theft Resource Center, a US nonprofit that provides victim assistance and consumer education, reported there were 355 healthcare breaches in 2016 affecting 15 million records.

Information contained in a medical record is particularly useful for lucrative fraud schemes because it’s high-quality, deeply personal, and permanent. On the dark web, this type of data is referred to as “fullz” (full packages of personally identifiable information). Fullz can’t easily be replaced (the way credit card numbers can), so it is more useful and provides more value to criminals.

Because the information contained in a health record is complete and comprehensive, it’s extremely versatile, and it takes much longer for fraud to be detected. The information can be used in a variety of fraud scenarios.

Sometimes personal identities are stolen to receive medical care. The Ponemon Institute provides an example where a patient learned his identity was compromised after receiving invoices for a heart procedure he hadn’t undergone. His information was also used to buy a mobility scooter and medical equipment, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in fraud.

Why Is ePHI So Vulnerable?

In response to increasing threats to patient health data and poor security, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was enacted in 2009. The act provided a 27 billion-dollar incentive to encourage health providers to switch from paper medical records to electronic files.

The results have been disappointing. Many healthcare organizations were slow to adopt electronic files because of struggles connecting different technologies. These disparate technologies need to work together so electronic health records (EHRs) are available to the appropriate staff.

When Barrack Obama was interviewed by Vox’s Ezra Klein and Sarah Kliff on January 6, 2017, he explained that this lack of interoperability was something he and his administration didn’t expect:

We put a big slug of money to encouraging everyone to digitalize and catch up with the rest of the world here. And it’s proven to be harder than we expected, partly because everyone has different systems. They don’t all talk to each other, it requires retraining people in how to use them effectively, and I’m optimistic that over time it’s inevitable it’s going to get better because every other part of our lives, it’s become paperless.

But it’s a lot slower than I would have expected; some of it has to do with the fact that it’s decentralized, and everyone has different systems. In some cases, you have economic incentives against making the system better; you have service providers—people make money on keeping people’s medical records—so making it easier for everyone to access medical records means that there’s some folks who could lose business. And that’s turned out to be more complicated than I expected.

As a result, hospitals and clinics have been operating, at least in part, with outdated technology, thus exposing them to the dangers of cyber-attacks.

Are Paper Medical Records Better?

It may be tempting to think that paper medical records are a safer option, but according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Managed Care, paper and films were the most frequent location of breached data.

Verizon’s 2018 Protected Health Information Data Breach Report also found that 27 percent of data breach incidents were related to sensitive data on paper. The Verizon report authors wrote:

Medical device hacking may be in the news, but it seems the real criminal activity is found by following the paper trail. Whether prescription information sent from clinics to pharmacies, billing statements issued by mail, discharge papers physically handed to patients, or filed copies of ID and insurance cards, printed documents are more prevalent in the healthcare sector than any other. The very nature of how PHI paperwork is handled and transferred by medical staff has led to preventable weaknesses—sensitive data being misdelivered (20 percent), thrown away without shredding (15 percent), and even lost (8 percent).

The Future of ePHI

While the progress is slow, it appears that more hospitals are using ePHI and beginning to catch up with the technological needs to protect it.

In 2017 the American Medical Informatics Association released a report using information from an American Hospital Association survey about hospital information technology. They measured “basic” and “comprehensive” EHR adoption among US hospitals and found that 80.5 percent of hospitals had at least a basic EHR system. Data breaches in the US healthcare field cost around six billion dollars annually. Even though the latest IBM Security/Ponemon Institute study found that, in the United States, healthcare data breach costs are higher than any other industry sector, the average cost per record is decreasing. The average data breach cost per record in the healthcare industry was 380 dollars in 2017, down from 402 dollars the year before.

Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.

Surviving the Storm



Texas-Based Call Center Reflects on the Trials and Tribulations of Hurricane Harvey

By Kevin Ryan

The first question often asked when a serious storm approaches is, “Are we prepared?” Over the years, we’ve educated ourselves on disaster preparedness. We’ve faced natural disasters before and worked through them successfully. We took this experience and built out our company with redundancy at the forefront. All our equipment is in a tier-4 data center in the middle of the state, away from the coast. We have two of everything: call servers, communication servers, power sources, data connections, and server farms, all backed up into the cloud.

We also have multiple office locations in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston, and Beaumont. Each office has redundant routers with two different incoming data circuits. Short of the data center completely going up in smoke, nothing could take us down. Then came Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey Arrives

Harvey first appeared as a tropical storm on August 17, 2017. By August 20, reports indicated the storm could gain hurricane status, with the Texas coast as the projected target. By August 23 all indications showed the storm had built up to a Category 4 and would hit Texas somewhere near Corpus Christi.

Hurricane Harvey made land fall on August 25 in Port Aransas as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 135 mph. The Rockport community was immediately devastated, with over 30 percent of the homes destroyed by high winds. As soon as Harvey made landfall, it quickly weakened. Wind speeds dropped, and the rain was consistent but not overwhelming.

We woke up on August 26 thinking we were okay. Our office south of Corpus Christi was back to fully operational, with just a few tree branches littering the parking lot. The staff had checked in. All were fine, and we were relieved. The forecast showed Harvey weakening and heading back out into the Gulf.

San Antonio made it through the storm almost untouched: no power outages, just some light flooding. There was general celebration. We had dodged the bullet. We knew the rain would continue and there might be some flooding.

Harvey Hits Huston

By August 27, Harvey had moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico and stopped just off the coast near Houston. It was now categorized as a tropical storm. But as it churned over the Gulf, it dumped massive amounts of rain on the greater Houston area.

A colossal amount of rain still pummeled Houston well into August 28. The area of flooding was larger than the state of New Jersey. Houston and the surrounding counties were declared disaster areas. Over fifty inches of rain fell on the city, shutting it down. Throughout the storm, we did all we could to stay in contact with our Houston staff to make sure they were safe. Most had or were being evacuated. Communication was spotty.

On August 29 Harvey came back inland, making landfall near Port Arthur and Beaumont. Our second-largest office is in Beaumont with thirty-plus employees. For the first time, we felt we were in real trouble. We had over forty employees from the Houston and Beaumont offices who were unaccounted for. The ability to stay in communication with our team members decreased by the hour. Our main priority was making sure our teams were safe, doing whatever we could to help them. Almost every business between Houston and Beaumont was closed, which caused a massive call surge on our lines.

Callers were trying to reach medical providers, pharmacies, service technicians, and city offices, all of which were closed and would remain so for the rest of the week. The fourth-largest city in the country would be closed until the following Monday. Our people were exhausted.

A Dire Situation

On Friday, September 1, our Beaumont office manager was finally able to get through to us, but she relayed a dire situation. Most employees had lost cars and homes. All were in shelters. There was no water, no food, and limited electricity.

At our office in San Antonio, we collected food, clothing, toiletries, and medicine. We organized a relief caravan to take off as soon as the roads opened, and by September 4, we had connected with all employees but one. We left early Friday morning with two trucks and a cargo van, each loaded down with food and supplies and met our Houston team at a Walmart just off the highway.

When we pulled into the parking lot, nine employees were waiting for us with their families. We supplied them with food, water, and clothing. Many had lost everything, and this was the first delivery of aid they had received. We will never forget their tears of joy. We spent two hours dispersing supplies before we were off to our next stop, Beaumont.

Making It to Beaumont

The drive to Beaumont was surreal. I-10 is the major east/west transit for the southern half of the US. What are normally open plains on either side of the road were now lakes. Floating debris could be seen in all directions. The water had a blue-green hue to it from the chemicals that had leaked out of the refinerys in the area. The city water system was still offline, so the only clean water for Beaumont residents was bottled water. There were lines of semitrucks stacked with water. Staging areas for water around the city had been set up. Because so many residents had lost their cars, most walked to an area to pick up a case of water.

We pulled into our Beaumont office parking lot around 5:00 p.m. Most of our staff had already arrived with their families and were waiting for us. We began unloading the food, water, and clothing into the hallways of our office.

A Hot Meal and a Bit of Normalcy

Once the trucks were unloaded, we drove to an open grocery store, purchased food, charcoal, and beer and returned for a family cookout in the parking lot. It was the first hot meal most of them had eaten in six days. With smoke billowing out of the grill, we finally relaxed. It was an opportunity to come together for a barbecue and much- needed normalcy.

The effects of Hurricane Harvey would last for months to come for our staff and business. Numerous employees remained in shelters well into November.

Over a year later, we still feel the effects of Harvey. However, our company stuck together through the trials and tribulations this storm inflicted on us. We continue to help each other through the ongoing challenges and consider ourselves better prepared for the future.

Kevin Ryan is the managing partner of business development at TAS United.

Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery: Hope for the Best, but Prepare for the Worst



By Michael Dozier

Disaster can strike your business at any time and in a variety of ways. Once an effective, well-designed, and professionally managed telephony disaster recovery plan is in place, you can rest secure in the knowledge that fire, flood, power outage, natural disasters, or other problems don’t mean a change in your business’s fortune.

Statistics about Disaster Recovery:

  • There were 102 disaster recovery declarations by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in 2016 and 136 in 2017. An even larger number of security, technology, network, and telecommunications outages and disruptions occur annually.
  • A Gartner study states, “Two out of every five companies struck with a major disaster are unable to recover. Of the survivors, one-third goes out of business within the next two years.”
  • Twenty percent of businesses experience an emergency failure in any given year, and 80 percent of those businesses will go under in just over a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Nearly 40 percent of small businesses close after a disaster, according to FEMA.
  • Only 25 percent of businesses that close due to a major disaster ever reopen, according to the Institute for Business & Home Safety.

Technologies and Mitigating Strategies:

In such circumstances, what technologies are available to businesses that might be used to keep telephony up and running 24/7? Start with session initiation protocol (SIP). SIP trunking offers high flexibility in the event of a disaster and has the capability to provide disaster recovery options for your business telephony. Most service providers offer:

  • Automatic Failover: In the event the primary T-1 or internet connection fails, calls automatically switch to a secondary, tertiary, or 4G LTE connections.
  • Automated Distribution and Rerouting of Calls: If your location fails to receive calls, calls are automatically rerouted between geographically diverse sites, to a designated off-site number, or another call center. This allows you to maintain receipt of inbound calls in the event of a power, system, or circuit failure.

Next look at disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS). Voice over IP (VoIP) needs to be at the core of any well-planned communications recovery strategy and should be used to bolster disaster recovery plans. Call centers with VoIP can expect a high availability in the event their system (either premise-based or hosted) fails or they lose connectivity to their system. Some key attributes of a failover, cloud-based backup system are:

  • Calls are automatically delivered directly to operator desktops via softphones.
  • Calling party ID and customer name or account number are delivered to the operator.
  • A cloud-based IVR provides multiple call queues, skills-based routing, and redirect of calls at the DID level.

The best line of defense in the event you lose the ability to work from your existing location due to fire, storm, power outage, or another disaster is a hot standby emergency system for remote continuity. Send employees home or to locations with internet access to work with a computer softphone and headset. You may be able to resume critical functions in minutes at a temporary location. The same key attributes of a failover, cloud-based backup system are available.

Finally, realize that communication continuity also depends on redundancy in the business continuity and disaster recovery provider’s infrastructure. Here are some criteria to consider:

  • Does the provider utilize redundant, geographically diverse data centers?
  • Are these data centers Tier 3 high-availability data centers or Tier 1 and Tier 2? Organizations selecting Tier 1 and Tier 2 solutions typically do not depend on real-time delivery of products or services for a significant part of their revenue stream.
  • Tier 3 data center services providers depend on colocation services for the critical lifeline of their business. Rigorous uptime requirements and long-term viability are usually the reasons for selecting strategic solutions found in Tier 3 and Tier 4 site infrastructure.
  • Is SIP trunk redundancy available? Insure connectivity of each SIP trunk to geographically diverse data centers, so if there is a data center issue, carrier issue, or other problem, the other takes over for all trunks and DIDs.
  • Is toll-free number redundancy available? In the event of a major failure at one carrier, all toll-free numbers are activated on a secondary carrier.
  • Do they provision DIDs to multiple carriers to terminate traffic? In the event of a major failure at one carrier, not all DIDs are out of service.
  • Does each of their data centers have connectivity to multiple national networks? If there is a problem with quality or service issues with one network, calls are routed to another.

A true business continuity telephony solution needs to be able to handle any kind of problem, no matter how big or small. Whatever disaster recovery methods for telephony a company uses, the effectiveness of the whole recovery plan will have a massive impact on how well a company deals with the disaster.

Create a Telecommunications Disaster Recovery Plan:

  • You need a serious plan if your regular communication method fails. Consider how your employees will react to the change in communication as well. Both customers and employees are key to your business running smoothly. Take both into consideration as you develop your plan.
  • Create a well-written document regarding how your telecommunications systems operate. Include important information like failover specifications and remote capabilities. Some issues can be resolved remotely with the proper plan in place. Be sure to document any critical operation functions and any service level agreements associated with them. Include the technical support reporting processes and escalation processes and contact information for all critical providers.
  • Identify the potential crisis that may affect your business telecommunications systems and create well-defined procedures to handle each crisis. Make sure various departments within your organization review the procedures, and make adjustments and addendums as necessary. Be sure to plan for the transition for resumption of service. Lastly, create roles and responsibilities for employees overseeing business continuity and recovery efforts. Does staff know where they should work from in the event of a disaster recovery plan being implemented?
  • The best way to ensure that your disaster recovery plan is effective is to implement a test.

Establish, develop, and manage strategies, plans, policies, and procedures to protect your people, facilities, and supporting technology in case of a disaster. Make sure your organization is prepared for the worst.

Michael Dozier is president and CEO of Pulsar360, Inc., a leading provider of SIP services and disaster recovery solutions for call centers.

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]