Tag Archives: Disaster Planning and Recovery

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]

Planning for Disaster

By Patty Anderson with Carin Shulusky

The world is a very dangerous place, and it seems to be getting more dangerous every year. While the national news is filled with large national disasters, many local (but equally destructive) events never make the news. Every call center owner and manager should ask the question, “How well would my operation survive a major disaster?”

Although you may never be able to prepare for all possibilities, smart business owners are taking steps to put in place a disaster preparedness plan. Relying on insurance is not enough. Insurance may help rebuild, but how do you keep your business operating if you lose everything?  Insurance can’t replace lost data or find a location to keep your business functioning. The first step for a smart business is to have a plan. The plan should include data storage and a strategy on how to use the stored data if you can’t return to your place of business.

More and more vendors are taking an active role in making sure their users are prepared. In addition to helping customers build a disaster preparedness plan that will get them up and running quickly after a disaster, vendors are increasingly offering off-site, secure data storage options. Another option available for VoIP users is the use of a VoIP loop, with a second node hosting an additional system with cluster servers installed. This copies all your data to both systems in real time. If a disaster takes out your main system, the second location would continue without a hiccup. This is true redundancy of your system.

Whatever system you choose, the first step is to develop a plan. It is much easier to prepare a plan before disaster strikes than when you’re standing in the middle of destruction. Whatever plan you choose to protect your business, it will be a great comfort to know you can continue to operate your business regardless of what comes.

Patty Anderson is director of sales and marketing at Telescan.

[From Connection Magazine June 2007]

Is Your Call Center Ready for a Disaster?

By Randy Saunders

Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, storms, power outages, terrorist threats…you never know when or how your business might be disrupted. But you do know that you must have a business continuity plan, since callers don’t stop calling just because you have an outage. In fact, often call volumes may actually increase. Your agents need to be available to callers. One negative experience and you could lose a client forever. Add to this the average number of contacts you have in a given time period, and it is easy to see how quickly the damage to your business can multiply with any outage.

Large call centers with established national or global operations typically have the resources to create redundant systems to overcome a local or even regional outage. If there is an outage or problem at one location, contacts are simply routed to the other open sites. However, small and medium-sized call centers typically don’t have the resources to build comprehensive disaster recovery plans and are left with few options other than rebuilding the system as quickly as possible.

Hosted contact centers to the rescue: Hosted contact center solutions provide call centers with a cost-effective and reliable solution that minimizes risks during an emergency by enabling agents to work from virtually anywhere. The latest hosted solutions require only a Web browser, a phone, and Internet access to provide the same complete contact center functionality as if the agents were on-site. Because all software and hardware are housed off-premise in a secure hosting facility, the “contact center” can continue to operate without disruption.

In fact, a hosted contact center can provide even greater flexibility and security than redundant physical contact centers. For instance, even if a company with multiple contact centers were able to reroute incoming contacts to one of their other centers, the remaining locations may not be able to handle the increased volumes or have the proper training to adequately handle the redirected calls. A hosted solution enables a call center to automatically route communications to available agents wherever they might be. Plus, if employees have to be evacuated, reestablishing operations is quick and inexpensive. This makes nearly any home or hotel a potential temporary outpost. The end result is the business continuity that your bottom line and your customers require.

A virtual contact center for real-world events – and a global economy: Because the hosted solution places the hub of the contact center outside of the organization, it makes the virtual contact center a reality. By strategically locating agents in geographically diverse locations, you can dramatically reduce the impact any single event could have on your operation. Far greater than even multiple contact centers, this can make your business nearly immune to local outages or disasters.

Fine Art By Hyatt is one company that can testify to the advantages of a hosted solution in an emergency. When Fine Art By Hyatt made their original decision to go with a hosted solution, a lot of factors besides emergency preparedness entered into the equation. However, when Hurricane Wilma stormed ashore less than twenty miles from the company headquarters in Naples, Florida, this ability moved to center stage. Larry Block, president of Fine Art By Hyatt, says, “Our agents in the Midwest and the western states were able to cover the phones while we were covering our heads to protect ourselves from Wilma. We never missed a beat as far as taking orders was concerned!”

Under non-emergency conditions, a hosted solution can provide unmatched scheduling flexibility for agents and managers. It enables call centers to employ the best agents available worldwide. The flexibility of hosted solutions also offers advantages during call spikes –in essence enabling your entire organization to become a pool of backup agents for unforeseen load conditions.

The importance of multichannel capability: A key component in the success of hosted solutions when addressing business continuity planning is the ability to integrate multiple channels. For example, if callers’ phones are out of service due to an outage, they will try to utilize other channels of communication, such as email, until they reach you. During Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attack, this situation became reality as millions of telephone lines and cell phones were inoperable, yet emails could still be sent from many locations. The ability to substitute contact channels proved vital in these situations.

Also, if your call center handles utilities, certain government agencies, and other disaster related organizations, call volumes will increase during emergencies. The ability to direct callers to alternative communication channels that are operational or to agents located outside the affected area could be critical. Today’s hosted solutions make all of this possible.

Hosted contact centers on the rise: The business continuity and advantages of today’s hosted contact center solutions haven’t gone unnoticed by businesses. According to Datamonitor, hosted contact centers will be the fastest-growing sector of the market, and by 2008, they will account for 38 percent of the global market. Additionally, DMG Consulting reports that by 2007, 20 to 30 percent of all new contact center seats will be hosted. By providing an economical and viable alternative to the on-premise contact center, a hosted solution enables call centers to establish business continuity capabilities and global customer service that was previously not feasible. The end result is minimized exposure in the event of a disaster.

Randy Saunders is the marketing director for Cincom’s Customer Experience Management products. He can be contacted at rsaunders@cincom.com. Cincom’s software and services have helped clients worldwide simplify the management of complex business processes, including data management; marketing, sales and customer service; application development; manufacturing; and outsourcing. For more information, call 800-224-6266, email info@cincom.com.

Key Business Continuity Advantages of Hosted Contact Center Solutions

Some of the key benefits of the best hosted contact center solutions in a business continuity plan include:

  • The ability for agents to log in remotely and receive phone, email, chat, and fax interactions.
  • Minimal capital outlay with no hardware or software investments, typically a simple monthly per-seat licensing
  • Inherent security with off-premise hosting that places your contact center infrastructure in a secure, redundant location
  • Elimination of the expensive, time-consuming process of buying, installing, and maintaining a backup site
  • Quick, simple, and inexpensive relocation requiring only a Web browser, a phone, and Internet access

[From Connection Magazine June 2007]

Profiting from Disaster: How to Ethically Make Money During a Crisis

By Maurice A. Ramirez

When a disaster strikes–whether it be a hurricane, earthquake, flood, terrorist attack, or some other devastating event–many businesses are eager to volunteer and assist those in need. Unfortunately, the resources that are brought in on a volunteer and donation basis typically run out much sooner than expected. And very often, those businesses who gladly gave their time and resources to those in need feel guilty charging for additional services, so they pack up and leave the area, proud of their good deed, yet leaving those in the disaster area with few recovery options.

A great example of this is what happened in Port Charlotte, Florida after Hurricane Charley. Initially after the hurricane, a large number of contractors went to the area, donating services, supplies, and other things needed to rebuild the community. The funny thing is that the residents of Port Charlotte didn’t want the contractors to leave and would have paid the contractors their normal rate to stay and finish the disaster recovery efforts. But the contractors–those who were there on a volunteer basis–felt guilty taking money from disaster victims. Now, two years later, many Port Charlotte residents are still seeking reputable contractors to help them. It’s an unfortunate situation that doesn’t have to happen.

So does that mean it’s possible to profit from a disaster situation and not feel guilty? Yes! And those businesses that are able to come into a community after a disaster strikes and offer a needed product or service can profit handsomely…and ethically.

3 Ways to Profit: When it comes to profiting from disaster, most people think of price gouging or profiteering. Price gouging is not only immoral and unethical, but in every state and every territory, it’s also illegal. It’s a criminal act in which you’re taking advantage of people who have no choice but to pay. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, examples were heard of unscrupulous storeowners selling generators (that normally retailed for a few hundred dollars) for two and three thousand dollars. Such people are not seeking to profit from disaster; they’re seeking to profit from misery.

There are essentially three ethical ways to make money after a disaster:

1. Volunteer and Donation. In this scenario, you volunteer your time and donate your products or services. You cover all your own costs and accept nothing in return, other than perhaps food and lodging. In return for your time and materials, you get the warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good for the community. You become an everyday hero. If you’re visible during this time, you also get great publicity, which could lead to business down the road from those who remember your good deed.

2. Discounted Services. This is the most common scenario, and just as the name implies, it means that you offer your products and/or services to the community at a discounted rate. Realize, though, that no one in the community asked for the discount (although none will turn the discount down either). Often, the business owner gives the discount because he or she has some level of altruism and is willing to make the self-sacrifice.

3. Full Price. In this scenario, you come into the community and bid a fair market price for a product or service, roughly equivalent to what other companies would charge during non-disaster times. And because it’s fair market price, people are more than happy to pay it. This is completely moral and ethical. Unfortunately, few businesses make the transition to full fare after starting out as a volunteer. But if you really want to grow your business and profit from disaster, this is the way to go.

From Free to Fee: So how does a business make the transition from a volunteer to a paid consultant or contractor? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be upfront. State how long you can offer your products or services for free. Explain that your company can only afford to volunteer for two weeks. Very often, at that point, they’ll ask you to bid the remainder of the work. Then you can offer a fair market bid. If you get a “yes,” then why would you not stay? You’re already there, and now you’re making money. If they say “no,” then they’re taking responsibility for their own recovery. At that point, you can go home and tend to your business, knowing that you’ve done a good deed.
  • When your community does its disaster relief plans (before a disaster hits), put your company on the list of businesses available to aid in the recovery efforts. Businesses can work with their local communities to be “first-called” in the event that a disaster strikes. In some cases, a business (let’s say a hospital, for example) may contract with a service provider (such as a roofing contractor) and pay a retainer fee so that in the event of a disaster, that contractor will put the hospital at the front of the list. In return, that contractor gets the bid for the other work the hospital needs done. The contractor is happy to give that deal because it guarantees them business. This is completely ethical. In fact, it’s a win-win solution. The business gets the repairs they need done and contractor has guaranteed work.

The bottom line is that businesses need to understand the different ways they can help, and they need to get over the stigma of profiting from disaster. Realize that the people receiving your products or services don’t mind paying for them. So take full advantage of this profitable market segment. By doing so, you’ll be helping people in need while helping your own business grow.

Dr. Maurice A. Ramirez cofounded Disaster Life Support of North America, Inc., to provide Disaster Preparation, Planning, Response and Recovery Education nationally.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2007]

PLAN for Disaster

By Maurice A. Ramirez

When hurricane Katrina slammed the gulf coast, every American witnessed the devastation that occurred from lack of preparation and planning. Officials knew the storm was coming and they knew it was going to be big, but planning was almost non-existent. Although the officials ran a number of drills, allowed three days to evacuate, and identified which areas and residents would be most at risk, they failed to plan a designated time to leave, how they would evacuate residents, and how much time they would need to get everyone out safely.

When hurricane Rita threatened Texas merely days after Katrina ravaged Missouri, the outcome was quite different. Each county in Texas planned and practiced for disasters annually. So when meteorologists plotted Rita’s path, officials in Texas already knew who would be a part of their plan, they anticipated being overwhelmed, and they had identified who could support them. Although their evacuation looked chaotic when everyone ran out of gas on the road, they were able to accommodate the situation and they had a plan in action quickly after the fuel shortage took hold.

So while the Katrina aftermath is still making headlines, Rita was much easier to deal with because the officials had a plan. Regardless of whether your city has a plan for dealing with a disaster, you, as an individual, can be prepared. Use the following steps, based on the acronym PLAN, to get yourself, your family, and your call center ready to handle whatever disaster you face.

P – PEOPLE: The first step in making your plan is to take an inventory of who will be participating. If you are making a plan for your family, consider who will be with you and how to prepare each person for the disaster. If you have small children, you may need to talk to them about what is happening and reassure them that everything will be all right.

Also, what tasks will each person perform? If you’re facing a hurricane, who will board up the windows? Who will make sure the dog gets into the car if you evacuate? Each person should have a function in ensuring the safety and security of everyone else. Even children can participate. A small task might make a child feel more purposeful, like a critical part of the plan, rather than a helpless bystander. So if your children are old enough to take part, put them in charge of the extra batteries or have them fill the water bottles.

Likewise, if you are making a plan for your business, consider who will participate and what role each person will fill. If you plan to close, you need to know who will be involved in the closing decision and how you will secure the premises. If you decide to stay open, your plan is even more important because you will be responsible for the safety of your employees.

Other people in your plan include contacts outside the disaster zone. You need someone to serve as a message board for communication. Then everyone involved in your plan can call in and let the centralized person know they are safe and their location. If you decide to leave, you may need someone out of state whom you can stay with.

Finally, consider what outside facilities you are going to rely on. If you have unanticipated emergencies, who are you going to call? Are they going to be able to get to you? If your entire plan is to call 911 and get assistance, you need to realize that in a disaster situation they probably won’t be able to assist you for seventy-two hours. In this case, you will need to reassess your plan.

L – LEAVE: Next, consider leaving the disaster zone. When and how will you leave (evacuate)? Where will you go and how will you get there? Will your family or employees meet before you leave or when you arrive at your destination? The decision to leave makes communication and your contacts outside the disaster zone critically important. How will you communicate while you evacuate and after you arrive at your destination? What are you going to do if you get separated? Operate on a buddy system; no one should be left alone. When you and your family or business associates become mobile, make sure everyone knows the plan. Then, if your plan fails, you need an alternative.

If you are not leaving, consider where will you stay and how will you stay safe. Will you all stay together or shelter in the place you are when the disaster strikes? Will you send some of your family or employees to your evacuation destination while others stay? All these factors need careful consideration and planning.

A – ANTICIPATE and ADAPT: Unfortunately, in a disaster situation, nothing always goes as planned. So anticipate plan failures and plan for the “what ifs.” This is a chance to brainstorm. Make a list of all the possible failures. What if the phone lines go down? What if your basement floods? What if you get caught in traffic? No “what if” scenario is too extreme to consider. The only possibility that you can’t plan for is the one you didn’t think of.

Once you’ve brainstormed possible failures, you need to adapt to each one with an alternate plan. If the phone lines go down, can you use your cell phone? If your basement floods, can you seek shelter with a neighbor or in some other nearby location? If you get caught in traffic, will you have enough gas to evacuate successfully?

What if something happens that you didn’t anticipate? If you go through this process enough times and really work on your plan, then you will be able to adapt to the failure. Your mind will be primed and you’ll be ready to think of alternatives, even if the failure isn’t anticipated beforehand.

N – NEEDS: In any disaster situation, you must be prepared to go for seventy-two hours without assistance. Those first seventy-two hours are critical because emergency relief will be overwhelmed during that time. Fire departments, police, and medical personnel won’t have the resources to get to everyone.

After hurricane Katrina, many people died simply because they ran out of food and water in those critical three days. However, four days before Rita hit Texas, the community leaders were on the television warning people that if they decided to stay, they needed to be prepared for seventy-two hours because no one would be able to help them.

When working on your plan, make sure you account for all your needs for seventy-two hours. Be prepared to be self-sufficient during this time. Each one of your family or team members must have personal identification and photos of all others in your plan, two quarts (liters) of drinking water, seventy-two hours of food, seventy-two hours of clothes, two weeks of medications, two weeks of toiletries, a supply of cash (credit/debit cards can’t be verified if phone lines go down), a flashlight, a portable radio, batteries, a signal whistle, white/silver duct tape, a first aid kit, prepaid calling card, and a list of emergency phone numbers.

These needs should be kept in a rolling backpack that stays with its owner. Keep this bag, your Disaster Pack, readily accessible. And if a disaster is imminent, keep the Disaster Pack with you at all times.

Are You Ready?: Once you have taken an inventory of your family or staff, made arrangements for evacuation, anticipated and accommodated failures, and gathered all your needs for seventy-two hours, you need to review and practice your plan each year.

Hurricane situations are timely because of what happened on the gulf coast, but regardless of what disaster situation you face, you must have a plan. In a tornado, tsunami, or terrorist attack, you can use these steps to make your disaster plan and ensure the safety of your family and your business.

Dr. Maurice A. Ramirez is Board Certified in emergency medicine, family practice, sports medicine, geriatric medicine, and clinical nutrition. He applies techniques used in the ER to everyday business problems.  

[From Connection Magazine December 2005]

Delivering Disaster Response

By Gary A. Pudles

The key to effective disaster response is people, well-trained, quick-thinking employees that carry out the procedures and who go beyond the call of duty to support colleagues and clients. AnswerNet’s staff qualifies. They put our disaster response program in play in September 2004 when Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne forced AnswerNet contact centers in Melbourne, Miami, and Orlando.

These devastating storms did little or no damage to our call centers; none of our employees were killed or injured. While Frances and Jeanne spared Miami, we evacuated the center as a precaution.

Preparing for the ‘Canes: Our plan includes rerouting contacts to other facilities, battery power at all sites to cover short outages, emergency generators at some locations to handle longer disruptions, and recorded announcements to clients’ callers. Josue Leon is AnswerNet’s corporate operations manager. He coordinates disaster planning and response from Miami. Hurricane planning began in February. We selected which accounts that would be transferred to other facilities. The contact centers segregate clients by local and toll-free numbers and by account types such as medical and Web order entry.

Toll-free accounts were transferred to backup sites through the carrier; local numbers were shifted manually. Client data was moved to other centers or the managers take the information with them when they evacuate. Account transfers and contact reroutes began 72 to 48 hours ahead of landfall. Josue spoke with larger customers at Miami and Orlando several times to ensure they were fine with the reroutes.

Clients received advance notice of shutdowns. If they wanted us to reroute calls we sent scripts to backup centers for agent training. We shifted groups of accounts to various centers to spread the load. In the past, only the Miami, Melbourne, and Mobile call centers prepared for hurricanes. In 2005, we added Orlando. Prior to Frances, Orlando hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in the past 90 years.

“When a hurricane is headed toward the U.S. east coast, you don’t know when it will actually hit until about 12-24 hours before landfall,” explained Josue. “We can’t wait until then to begin our procedures because it is almost impossible to move accounts in such short notice.”

Storm Response: When Frances readied her swing towards our Melbourne contact center, general manager Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Brumlow closed the site September 2; she reopened it September 7. When Jeanne took aim at the community, Stevie shuttered the facility September 24; she unlocked the doors on September 28. Mandatory evacuations for both storms made the use of onsite power backups moot.

We began shifting contacts away from our Mobile center on September 14th when Ivan approached the city. General manager Patsy Hutchins told her staff that they did not have to stay. Patsy and billing manager Kimberly Jackson took calls Wednesday evening September 15. The center placed a recording on local accounts answered in Mobile. It asked callers to “please be patient as we are experiencing a large volume of calls and we would get to them as quickly as possible.”

The Mobile site has a generator connected to its workstations and outlets but not its air conditioning system. When the utility electricity went out that night, the site stayed up while Patsy and Kimberly kept cool using fans.

Dena Cox, one of supervisors, stayed with Patsy Thursday night. Utility power did not come back on until Friday afternoon September 17. Staff began returning to the contact center that morning and operations gradually returned to normal the following week.

The other centers took steps to shoulder the additional contacts. For Frances, Santa Rosa general manager, Irene Spear, rescheduled day staff to come in a few hours earlier and added a shift. She paid overtime and brought in sandwiches.

The contact centers continued to handle the extra volume for some time. Also, online services were not restored until a week or more after the centers had reopened.

“When the calls were returned back to the original centers we often did not have enough staff because they hadn’t all returned home,” explains Josue. “We kept some of the accounts at their temporary sites until all employees came back.”

Stepping in for Clients: AnswerNet team members looked after clients. When batteries at BellSouth’s nearby Mobile central office ran out of energy mid-morning Thursday September 16, Patsy shuttered the center. She explained that the telco, anticipating an evacuation, had moved backup generators out of the city.

Undaunted by downed phone service at home and by sporadic cell coverage, Patsy got in touch with her colleagues and they eventually got through to BellSouth. The telco then reconnected a generator. The phone lines went live that evening and the contact center reopened shortly.

“BellSouth was great to work with,” recounts Patsy. “When we explained to them that we answered very critical calls, such as for doctors and medical centers they worked as fast as they could to reconnect us.”

AnswerNet’s teams gave a virtual presence for those customers whose businesses and practices had been damaged or disrupted by the storms. “Some medical clients did not have power and could not re-enter their offices for at least a week after we reopened, but we still took calls for them,” recalled Stevie. “We also took calls for a property management firm whose building had been condemned after being hit badly by Jeanne. They were finding homes for people who had lived there.”

Perhaps the truest test of disaster response is how employees pull together despite the impacts the events had on them. Some of their homes had minor damage. Ivan uprooted a pecan tree that hit the carport at the back of Patsy’s house.

Several staffers evacuated or had lost power. They camped out in shelters or with family, relatives, and friends. Stevie, who could not return home for 13 days after Frances and six days after Jeanne, stayed with her son.

“Even if you could get home or to your office there were problems getting around because the local gas stations were closed,” she points out.

Josue put hurricane shutters on his house and cleaned out his pool patio at night in the rain during Frances while managing disaster response across the centers. “I wanted to make sure nothing fell through cracks, while anticipating that at some point I would be out of commission,” explains Josue.

He had very high praise for how his teammates handled the disasters. “The general managers responded to our crises without hesitation, “said Josue. “They transitioned contacts to backup centers or handled calls while on emergency power, with little or no service disruption.”

Gary A. Pudles is President and CEO of AnswerNet, Inc. based in Princeton, NJ. He can be reached via email at Gary@AnswerNetNetwork.com or 609-921-7450.


How Prepared Are You for Disaster?

By Carin Shulusky

On September 11, 2001 there were 50,000 people working at 110 businesses in the World Trade Center. By noon there were none.

Last year was the costliest hurricane season on record. Nine hurricanes hit the United States. Six were a category three or higher. Together these hurricanes caused more than $42 billion dollars of damage.

In December, a 9.0 earthquake struck Indonesia and the Indian Ocean. It may have been the second largest quake ever recorded. The tsunami that followed killed 145,000 people. The total cost of the damage may never be known. Homes, schools, and businesses were washed away. Plus, many local, but very destructive disasters never make the news.

The world is a very dangerous place and it seems to be getting more dangerous every year. How well would your call center survive a major disaster? Are any businesses really “safe”?

Although you may never be able to prepare for all possibilities, smart call center owners and magazines are taking steps to put in place a disaster preparedness plan. Relying on insurance is not enough. Insurance may help rebuild, but how do you keep your business operation, if there is no business? Insurance can’t replace lost data. For teleservice companies and call centers, the heart of their business is their staff; protecting staff is a business basic. But if the heart is the people, the soul is data. Most businesses do not protect their data nearly as well. Undetected viruses can wipe out your entire data base in seconds. One of the easiest ways to protect your business from lost data is to store your data files off site. Creative businesses have found many ways to store their files. Some have fire proof safes for data files or keep files in a safe deposit box.

The first step is to develop a plan. It is much easier to prepare a plan before disaster strikes. Whatever plan you choose to protect your business, it will be a great comfort if your business doesn’t shows up on the morning news.

For more information about off site data storage solutions, contact Telescan at 800-770-7662.

[From Connection Magazine June 2005]

Safe Haven: A Disaster-Planning Case Study

By Gina R George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2005]

Protecting Your Data, Protecting Your Business

By Paul Hrabal

There is no doubt that there is a new focus on business continuity and data protection. The impact of recent world events, coupled with an overwhelming dependency on electronic data in virtually every business sector has caused a majority of organizations to reexamine their data protection strategies.

For Fortune 500 companies, these aspects of disaster recovery planning often involve investing millions of dollars in completely redundant off-site systems and/or data centers. However, for thousands of smaller companies around the world, effective data protection is an equally daunting task.

In this article, we will look at some of the major aspects of corporate data protection and business continuity planning and explain why they are such crucial components of an enterprise’s overall disaster recovery strategy. Finally, we will discuss how managed service providers are offering companies simpler and more cost-effective options for protecting their data, guaranteeing the continuity of their business against future disasters.

Data: Protecting an Organization’s Most Important Asset: There are four primary assets needed to effectively operate an information system: facilities, hardware, network, and data. In the event of a disaster, hardware and networks can be replaced and facilities can be moved to a new location. With the exception of data, virtually every company system asset is replaceable.

Every organization has an indispensable core set of data. Whether it is payroll information, customer records, research, financial records, or email files, all corporate data is valuable and vulnerable to loss or irreparable damage. Data loss can result from any number of factors, such as:

  • Human error
  • Operating system or application software bugs
  • Hardware failure
  • Fire, smoke, or water damage
  • Power outages
  • Employee theft or fraud
  • Man-made disasters such as sabotage, hacking, or viruses
  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes

Any one of these factors can cause data loss, and the results can be catastrophic. It can result in the permanent loss of information or hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to repair the damage. Regardless of the cause, data disruption and loss poses a significant risk for any business. It has a negative impact in real dollars, lost opportunity, client dissatisfaction, and overall organizational image.

So what must companies to do preserve their data? They must have a plan that incorporates the following three components:

  • Backup: This is the process of copying important data and maintaining duplicate copies for restoration in case of data loss or damage. A variety of file versions are necessary to ensure that it is possible to restore the most recent usable copy of the data required. Protecting data backups offsite is a necessary precaution for disaster recovery, and multiple generations of backups provide the ability to recover to a particular point in time.
  • Archive: Archiving involves copying disk file systems and placing the copy (usually on tape) into long-term storage. Archives create a legally acceptable business history and can be used to free up hard disk space by allowing users to create an off-line version of static data or files and delete the online copy.
  • Recovery: Recovery is the process of recovering from an outage or disaster. In off-site vaulting of data, backup media is protected in a remote, secure location as part of the tape rotation scheme. This off-site media is available for system recovery if the on-site media is lost or damaged in a disaster.

Today, you don’t need to be one of the largest corporations in the world to have a best-in-class data protection strategy that incorporates all these components. Later, we will discuss the newer, cost-effective options available to organizations today. First, we’ll discuss how data protection ensures a company’s long-term viability through business continuity.

Business Continuity: Planning for the Worst

According to a 2001 survey by Gartner, technology purchasing decision makers cite disaster recovery and business continuity among their top five priorities. Business continuity is the process of providing for the continuation of critical business services regardless of any event that may occur. This means ensuring continuity of an organization’s data as well as its Web, database and file servers, and all of its business-critical applications. A business continuity plan is a critical aspect of an organization’s risk management strategy and is instrumental to its survival, should disaster occur. A comprehensive business continuity plan will help:

  • Protect and secure data
  • Shorten disaster recovery time
  • Improve organizational resilience
  • Reduce risk and exposure to loss
  • Decrease downtime
  • Enable compliance with regulatory and legal requirements

The objective of business continuity planning and data protection is to minimize the impact of a disaster upon an organization. So how do organizations deal with business continuity and data protection? You don’t need the resources of the Fortune 500 to develop a sound business continuity plan. Any company can be devastated if their data is lost or their servers go down. For companies with an eye on the bottom line, managed service providers offer an alternative solution.

Managed Service Providers: Disaster Recovery for the Rest of Us

Forbusinesses that do not maintain large data centers or IT staffs, data protection and business continuity can be cumbersome and error-prone. By some estimates, more than 12 million U.S. based businesses do not fully backup data or recover business data after a server crash.

Even companies that have data protection and business continuity plans in place often do not do an adequate job. Many do not have sufficient IT staff to adequately prepare for disaster recovery. In addition, traditional batch-style, tape-based backup continues to be a costly, labor-intensive process requiring frequent manual intervention and great posing potential for error. As a result, many organizations perform bulk server backup when they can and store tapes offsite even less frequently. In the event of a disaster, these companies are left trying to recover their businesses using data that is weeks, or even months, out of date.

Today, advances in data replication and security technologies combined with reduced bandwidth costs allow managed service providers to offer online backup, recovery, and electronic vaulting services to businesses with limited IT resources. Managed service providers offer data protection services remotely, including continuous online data backup, recovery, and electronic vaulting. Unlike traditional methods of data protection, where data is typically backed up every 24 hours at best, managed service providers offer continuous data backup, safeguarding an organization against data loss and helping them immediately recover and restore lost data in the event of a disaster.

By using a managed service provider, organizations retain front-end control of their data protection operations, while handing off burdensome back-end tasks such as server backup, device maintenance, tape management, and off-site removal and storage. Other benefits of using a managed service provider for data protection and business continuity planning include:

  • Simple and low-risk data removal: Data is no longer at risk of not being removed or mislaid during the removal process. A managed service provider utilizes low-cost Internet connections through a secured network connection to a backup server located in a protected off-site data center vault. Therefore, data is automatically and immediately sent off-site. Tape damage or mishandling as well as transportation issues are eliminated.
  • Safe and accessible data archiving: By using a managed service provider, data is never in an unsafe environment and is always accessible. A managed service provider addresses concerns over improper storage by protecting data off-site in a secure data center.
  • Reliable data recovery: Problems surrounding the recovery of data through traditional means such as the inaccessibility of current data and slow recovery are eliminated by using a managed service provider.
  • Ease of manageability: Managed service providers allow customers to manage their data protection process through a personalized Web management interface. This allows them to view the status of their data and initiate recovery from anywhere, through any Web browser. While the service provider assumes responsibility and automates back-end functions, users retain overall control of their data protection by creating customized backup policies, checking status, and initiating restore operations whenever needed.

Gartner estimates that two out of five companies that experience a disaster will go out of business in five years. Companies today can’t afford not to have a data protection and business continuity strategy as part of their overall disaster recovery plan. Managed service providers offer their clients solutions that won’t overburden their internal resources or tax their budgets, while giving them the protection and reliability that they need.

Paul Hrabal is President of U.S. Data Trust Corporation (www.usdatatrust.com). U.S. Data Trust provides fully managed online backup and recovery services for small to medium sized businesses.

[From Connection Magazine December 2004]