3.8 Disaster and contingency planning in call centers
An important aspect of managing a corporate facility-one that includes resources, equipment, and people-is disaster and contingency planning. There are several reasons why a disaster and contingency plan should be put in place by every call center operation, and should be rehearsed, like a fire drill, periodically. Not the least of these reasons is maintaining call center services in the face of natural or human disasters. Many problems or contingencies can arise that result in a call center being shut down and customer communication lost, possibly for an extended period, if alternative arrangements have not been made.
Several situations can result in call center downtime: natural disasters-storms, snow, flooding-can keep people from getting to the center; construction, often the bane of those who need to maintain continuous communication services because of frequent disruptions to power, cable, or telephone lines; fire; power spikes; cable cuts; computer crashes; and network outages-all can very quickly cut communication links to the outside world. While these disturbances may be localized, affecting only a small number of centers, the cost of downtime to any center hit by a temporary shutdown can be enormous. This is why it is critical for call centers to invest in disaster contingency planning, with the hope that it may never have to be implemented but if required the center and staff are well prepared.
Coping with emergency situations
The following procedures for coping with emergency situations have been developed from the experience of many call centers.
Identify key systems at risk in a disaster or emergency situation
Some of these systems are obvious-switching technology, data processing equipment, and so on. How vulnerable is the business if the package delivery/ courier service is not available? Labor trouble in these service organizations can shut a business down. Orders may be taken over the phone, but if they can't be delivered, customers may stay away. Because all organizations depend on other companies, every service that is outsourced is particularly vulnerable, especially order fulfillment, personnel supply, and service and maintenance on internal equipment.
If outside services are critical to continuous operation, there are essentially two choices for setting up a contingency plan:
Single-source services, ensuring that vendors have enough redundancy or extra capacity to handle defined contingencies
Multisource services to provide backup in case the primary vendor has difficulty meeting contractual obligations
As noted, contingency planning needs to be applied to every service, from courier services to communication resources such as long-distance services. Organizations that are service providers need to inform customers of contingency plans to ensure continued service in case of snow, fire, or other short- and medium-term emergencies.
Conduct a cablinglwiringlpower assessment
Map out every wire and connection in the center with a pictorial interconnection diagram showing the connections between technologies. This will make it possible to check the power protection status of every server, PC, switch, and node. A critical assessment will identify which items are covered by UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units, which have hot-swappable power supplies, and which systems require these resources.
Telephone systems are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes, and a protection mechanism should be in place to prevent outages in phone service. A lightning strike could short out all phone sets and headsets, leaving CSRs with working computers and incoming ACD calls that cannot be answered.
Identify manual work procedures
A contingency plan should provide for manual order taking if the computer systems go down. Make sure there are always enough hard copies of current product or service catalogs for every inbound CSR so that basic pricing and ordering information can be given to a caller. CSRs also need to be trained in procedures for handling customers when customer data are not available. In addition, contingency planning should provide backup resources as well as procedures for handling the sudden flood of calls that come into the center when the IVR or auto attendant is down.
The Internet can pose another type of contingency planning problem. Can the center react to an increase or decrease in contact volume through alternative means, such as e-mail or text-chat? The more access methods customers have, the more points at which a sudden change can cause problems that may not be disastrous but may require special consideration. On the other hand, the more avenues a customer has to contact a company, the less likely the company will lose that customer to a disaster.
Identify key personnel
It's important to know who will be on call during a problem situation and the specific responsibilities of those personnel. Every staff member should be briefed on his or her responsibilities in an emergency.
Any working group convened for call center contingency planning should include members from other departments, especially people from IT and the facilities management departments, in order to share knowledge. They need to be made aware of the impact call center failure could have on the entire company and on the company's revenue stream. Personnel from other departments need to provide coordinated responses to problems that affect data processing, order processing, shipping, the availability of human resources-in fact, every aspect of the business.
Explore secondary operating sites
Sometimes, the only way truly to prevent disasters is to replicate call center functions in another location. If there's a flood, fire, or natural disaster that affects the central operation, CSRs can continue to operate from another location. Doing this could be as simple as using non call center assets (basic office space, for example) or as complex as arranging to buy contingency services from organizations that provide disaster and contingency services. There are also companies that offer to operate an entire call center from alternative sites in any location, for a substantial fee. These "call centers on call" are not traditional outsourcing services. User organizations pay a retainer to have access to their services as required, such as in an extreme emergency. Disaster-oriented services can provide a range of resources, including equipment, temporary (often mobile) facilities, and data processing and backup functions, as well.
These are only a few of the options available. It is important to remember that the continued operation of a call center depends on a complex set of connected technologies that are vulnerable to circumstances outside the control of call center management.
Power is one of the company's most serious resources that require protection. When a call center goes down, company revenues stop flowing. Call center downtime, whether caused by natural or human disasters, is to be avoided at all costs. Downtime means customer calls are not coming in, orders are not being taken, and customers are getting impatient, even angry. They will turn to other companies to meet their needs. Thus, protecting the center from power outages is an important function that must be performed from the first day of operation.
One of the most common causes of downtime is failure of the electrical power system, often without warning, an event that will take a call center "off the air," usually for some time. Backup power sources are mandatory to prevent downtime due to power outages. The IVR (interactive voice response) system is a good example of a technology resource that will be out of service in a power failure. Once a call center has become dependent on IVR, it becomes a crucial part of the enterprise-handling a substantial amount of call traffic, promoting customer satisfaction, and generating revenue. In some cases, the IVR system handles all inbound calls, either directly or by passing them back to CSRs through an ACD. In this situation, loss of IVR would be as serious as loss of phone service.
Some facts about power problems that can help a call center manager prepare for power outages in the most effective manner are
Power problems are the single most frequent cause of phone and computer system failure. Surveys indicate that the average IVR system has a significant power fluctuation (spike, surge, or brownout) approximately 400 times a year. Increasing consumption in regional power grids will only exacerbate the problem.
Power-related damage is one of the most difficult types of damage to recover from. This form of damage creates two problems: It can destroy hardware, often necessitating costly, time-consuming replacements, and it wipes out data.
Multiple connections to trunks, networks, peripherals, and so on increase the number of access routes for power surges. The more components that are interconnected, including data sources, the more vulnerable the center is to a power outage.
Uninterruptible power supply (UPS)
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a battery system that provides power to a telephone switch or computer. Surge protectors control high voltages that can surge down power or telephone lines, destroying delicate equipment. Power conditioners remove noise, adjust voltage levels, and generally deliver clean power to telephone switches and computers. There are high-end UPS systems available that combine all of these functions in a single unit. Some UPS systems are marketed specifically for telecommunications applications; however, the UPS specifications for power protection of telephone systems are essentially the same as for a computer system.
Power management software is a recent development in the management of electrical power. These products allow users to track power conditions throughout the network from a workstation and provide UPS with more sophisticated features, including the capability of shutting down unattended equipment.
Power protection is an inexpensive form of insurance for call centers. The technology is proven and the added cost ranges from 10 to 25% of the hardware's value, excluding the value of the data that power protection will preserve in the event of a power outage. In fact, call center data are usually far more valuable than the hardware, which can be replaced.
Auditing disaster and contingency plans
There are two major components to a successful disaster and contingency recovery strategy. The first is contingency planning, which involves identifying all the elements critical to the call center operation: people, processes and equipment. It also means planning for situations where these elements will not be available with backup strategies for a variety of emergency conditions. The second component is installing a technology net that includes power protection, backup power supplies, redundant trunks and carriers, and duplicating any other resources that may be required in an emergency.
To ensure complete protection of the call center, an audit of disaster and contingency plans should also include the following activities:
Document every aspect of the center-from wiring runs to home phone numbers of all critical personnel. This activity includes putting all plans on paper so they will survive a network crash. Staff members need to know where the plans are stored and have quick access to them.
Conduct emergency drills involving all staff-so they are well prepared for a real emergency. They need to know their roles and how to keep the center operating.
Identify potential risks-depending on the geographic location of the center, there may be greater likelihood of an emergency involving a snowstorm than an earthquake.
Conduct a power audit-UPS devices are designed with the assumption that building wiring will provide proper routes to ground and has sufficient load capacity to control diverted power surges. Ensure that building power circuitry meets this requirement.
What needs to be protected? Identify exactly what systems are particularly critical and which are less critical and nonessential in the short term to the continued operation of the center. Establish priorities. Is it more important to be able to take orders? Or provide service? Thinking about these priorities will provide useful insight into the way the call center fits into the company's overall business process.
The key objective in disaster and contingency planning is to take precautions to ensure a minimum continuity of function and connection to customers. The call center is one of a company's most vulnerable departments because it has several complex core technologies and the loss of its operational capabilities means being cut off from customers; therefore, its recovery should be a top priority.