Continuing the Service

By TMCnet.com  |  September 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Contact centers are moving from the periphery to the core of organizations, serving as their interfaces with customers, thereby enabling them to stay in and grow their businesses. It is becoming increasingly imperative then to continue service to customers and if that is not possible to inform them what is happening when disasters threaten and strike. This is on top of protecting employees’ lives in the event of such events. Together that means firms may have to look again at their business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) strategies.

At the same time new technologies and methods – cloud/hosting computing, home-based agents, smartphones and VoIP– are changing how firms communicate with customers and employees. How can these tools help firms to protect their staff and operations and facilitate recovery as well as stay in business as part of their BC/DR plans?

Customer Interaction Solutions discussed these trends and others via interviews with two leading business continuity experts:

*          Margaret Jordan, vice president, global project management Office Sitel (www.sitel.com )

*          Steve Waken, assistant vice president, corporate business continuity planning, AT&T (News - Alert) (www.att.com) CIS: How critical is it for live agent, general customer service and sales contact centers to remain in operation during disasters? Has this increased or decreased in importance over the past five years and if so why?

Jordan: In the event of a disaster or disruptive event, it is of our utmost importance to provide live support during all times. The benefits are widespread. Little impact or interruptions means superior customer service is always upheld, with minimal financial losses. Our crisis teams are continually engaged to ensure operations are retained as quickly as possible. Many of our clients also have secondary hot sites for immediate re-location in this situation.

We experienced one recent situation, in which the client was impacted with an unforeseen evacuation. We put the systems in place to ensure our client was back up and running at the hot site in just minutes, with minimal interruptions.

We are also being more proactive, especially for those clients without a secondary location. In the event something occurs, we immediately create and launch emergency messaging for customers informing them of a closure. We also set up call routing, re-allocating our resources within minutes, instead of the several hours it can normally take. If there is any downtime, it is a lot less than what we might have experienced in similar situations just a few years ago.

Waken: When natural disasters and unexpected events occur, it is absolutely vital to minimize risk to employees, customers and the public, reduce disruptions to operations and protect essential assets.  With a contact center serving as the front door to the business, maintaining a fully functional contact center can be the lifeline for how enterprises manage through crisis events.Contact centers work to ensure continued client operations in disaster situations. Those that use an array of automation services can accomplish call fulfillment in a highly efficient and effective manner, even when resources are limited during an emergency.  Operating contact centers during disasters helps to satisfy the needs of demanding customers, who want always-on access to support and sales services, and reassures them that the business that they are counting on is still putting them first. Keeping sales centers open contributes to new revenue generation, and maintaining support centers helps with customer satisfaction and retention.

AT&T Customer Service Centers play a critical role for customers who may have lost their homes or otherwise relocated after a disaster. For example, a family who has lost their home (and their telephone line), can contact an AT&T service representative to activate a new line or forward their home number to their cell phone.It's also important to coach call center employees on emergency procedures. If there is a fire or tornado, how do you account for everyone? Have you discussed family emergency plans? (http://www.ready.gov/ ) Have any employees been personally impacted by loss of home or family members? What services can the company provide to those employees? Establishing and discussing these issues before a disaster enables you to quickly react and inspires confidence that you are prepared.CIS: There have been changes in the methods and technologies used by contact centers, such as:

(a) The advent of home-based and remote-capable agents and supervisors

(b) Cloud-based computing for hosted applications such as IVR, dialing and routing and for data, and virtualization. They are supplementing, and in some cases supplanting onsite hardware, software and application and data storage

(c) SIP trunking/VoIP, replacing PSTN/TDM

(d) Self-service improvements including customer-friendly web sites, automated chat and e-mail, speech recognition and outbound notifications

(e) Unified communications/unified messaging (UC/UM)

How and which ones have had significant impacts on contact center/customer service business continuity/disaster response (BC/DR) strategies? For example, which processes and tools have these supplanted?

Waken: Remote and home-based worker solutions are highly useful in disasters and emergencies or even in inclement weather. Through services such as remote VPN, contact center agents can access the tools, resources, applications and data they need to perform their job functions effectively, outside of the contact center itself.Cloud services offer great potential in business continuity/disaster recovery in contact centers and in other settings. With flexible, reliable, on-demand access to company data from almost any device, almost anywhere, the cloud can host an array of information for contact centers.  Cloud storage can backup an entire business's data, expanding and contracting to meet company needs.  Using network-based SIP routing capabilities provides the ability to get clients to the right customer service centers that are available to address their concerns the first time they call.  As the need to respond to an emergency situation arises, businesses can develop new routing plans and invoke alternate business rules to direct calls to the most available resources at the time.Self-service websites work well for answering many customer questions, but many still want the personalized experience of speaking to a live agent.  While features such as chat, FAQ and notifications can contribute to a reduction in call volumes, they haven’t and likely will not displace contact centers.UC/UM features allow contact centers to send group notifications, emails and voicemails. During any type of disaster, maintaining communications with employees, customers and shareholders is critical to managing through an event to keep everyone informed, mitigate panic and continue critical business functions. UC/UM infrastructure can be hosted off-site, providing a layer of defense against damage in an emergency.All of these developments in contact center technology offer greater protection to the business during a disaster situation, but it are still important to consider using onsite generators, recovery rooms and other backup systems. Business continuity and disaster recovery strategies should take into account all possibilities.CIS: Has the gradual switch of personal communications from landlines to wireless-including from voice to text impacted on the ability of contact centers to reach out to employees before, during and after disasters? If so, then how?

Jordan: The move to mobile communications has allowed us to be a lot more efficient in this area. We’re now able to reach associates through text messaging with important details, including emergency contact information and blog site information. During a severe tornado last year in Alabama, we used text messaging to locate 95 percent of our staff within five hours of the event.  We recently acquired satellite phones for sites in hurricane/typhoon-prone locations, further ensuring we gain full access to key personnel during an event that will likely affect regular cell phone communications.

Waken: Yes, these shifts in technology have impacted how contact centers reachout to employees in a positive way. Instead of utilizing old-fashioned phone trees, companies can send out mass text messages, e-mails and voicemails to alert contact center agents to impending emergencies. 

People are more connected by way of technology today than ever before, so it's often easier to make contact.  For instance, if an employee is driving into work during a rainstorm, but the company has decided to shut down the contact center due to flooding, they can be reached through a text message or a mobile phone call.In addition, wireless service providers back up their networks with a great deal of contingency planning, to ensure that they can maintain functionality for their customers during emergencies.  Wired phone lines are more susceptible to weather events or other disasters, as they depend on the physical infrastructure of telephone poles and cables. Text messaging also offers a great alternative to voice calls during a disaster. The phone lines in the impacted area may be congested due to the number of people trying to contact loved ones – texting can often get through where voice calls can't, helping everyone quickly find out if their families are safe.The best strategy for contact centers is geographic diversity. Having the ability to route customer calls to a different location significantly increases business resiliency. Self-service via the web, outsourcing and remote work are also great strategies that often provide non-disaster related benefits. As part of continuity planning, businesses should identify critical processes, applications and tools that would suffer during a disaster scenario. They should then establish thorough continuity strategies, incorporating communications, remote access, hosting and storage capabilities, and systems recovery plans.  Companies need to allocate responsibilities, inform their employees of their contingency plans and then test those plans to ensure that everything works seamlessly when an actual disaster occurs. 

The Cloud and BC/DR

Cloud-based solutions can make business continuity/disaster response (BC/DR) strategies much more effective as they avoid losing the switching and other applications from these events.

*          Hot sites: temporary offsite recovery rooms where employees can work from have long been part of BC/DR strategies. Yet Louis Hayner, chief sales officer at Alteva (News - Alert) (www.altevatel.com) points to estimates that only one in four people deemed critical in a BC/DR plan will show up to a hot site. Cloud-based offerings permit staff wherever they are to log in, get informed and work.

“With cloud based offerings, businesses can address the question, ‘What happens when the people that are part of the company’s emergency response plan do not show up to the hot site?’” says Hayner

*          Traditional telephony rerouting in the event of disasters can be slow and cumbersome. Cloud/hosting coupled with VoIP can make such configurations much faster – time is critical in disasters – and easier, enabling reaching out to agents and supervisors regardless of location or device.

For example M5 Networks’ (News - Alert) (www.m5.net) customers can use its online portal to configure and manage how to route their calls in the event they lose power or cannot make it into the contact centers, explains Jeff Valentine, senior vice president of product marketing. Other M5 solution features that support disaster recovery include: find me/follow me (automatic call forwarding to mobile devices and cell phones), flexible call routing and advanced queuing using its Callfinity (News - Alert) Contact Center to distribute calls.

The Flywheel UPS Alternative

For contact centers that rely on backup generators, the bridging current and eliminating potential computer-damaging transients that can occur when these engines kick in and out has been the job of heavy battery-powered uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units.

Now there is a smaller, more environmentally-friendly alternative for UPS systems in those applications: flywheels. NOVO 1’s Holland, Mich. contact center, which opened in July 2010, uses an Active Power (www.activepower.com ) flywheel unit.

Flywheels are large rotating rotors that store energy as kinetic energy, explains Kevin Smith, IS manager at NOVO 1. Flywheel-powered UPS systems work almost the same as their battery-based counterparts. In normal operation, electricity powers the flywheels or batteries and keeps them charged. When the power provided by the local electric utility is lost, as in a power outage or a brownout, the stored energy is then converted to electrical power to keep the facility running until a backup source, such as a generator, is brought online.

Flywheel UPS systems provide several key benefits over battery systems. These are:

*          Higher electrical efficiency

*          Smaller footprint, by as much as 60 percent

*          Environmentally friendlier, as a portion of the batteries do not need to be replaced every five years, and the chemicals inside of them are considered non-environmentally friendly

*          Battery UPS systems require special spill containment measures

Flywheels have their downsides, the main one being is that they have a significantly reduced runtime compared to battery-based systems, explains Smith. Depending on the power load and flywheel size, a flywheel system may only provide a minute of operational runtime whereas a battery-based system may provide up to 15 minutes or more of runtime before requiring a discharge. Since backup power is provided with a generator, NOVO 1 needs only enough power to run the facility until power is restored.

The performance of the flywheel-based UPS has been flawless. The first time it kicked in, recounts Smith, was a week after the system was installed. The cutover was completely unnoticed by anyone in the facility except for maintenance staff who were alerted when utility power failed.

“Compared to battery-based UPS in our other call centers, the Holland flywheel-based UPS has performed without fail, while costing significantly less to maintain and without requiring the disposal of toxic batteries,” says Smith. “Based on our experience with the flywheel installation, we look forward to applying the benefits of flywheel-based UPS to call centers that we build in the future.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi