The call center industry, like several others, has many, many levels of what can be considered a disaster. The key is to get your organization prepared to handle any of them in the shortest amount of down time possible. The simple fact is, whether you lose your phone lines, the processor in your automatic call distribution (ACD), or your entire building, is irrelevant to your clients. The fact is you are not answering their calls, and they are not receiving the service they require from you. When a call center loses any aspect of their business that holds the power to stop phone calls from getting to a representative to be handled, the revenue stream comes to a screeching halt, and regardless of the reason, it can still cost you valuable clients.
I believe the first step in being prepared to handle a disaster is to consider all points of failure and develop a plan for each point of failure individually, combining those that are possible. While there are many points of failure in any business, this is considering only those that can actually stop you from doing business altogether. In a call center, your points of failure have a large range, from equipment, to telephone and Internet lines, to power, to location, with many steps in between.
Let’s take a look at equipment first. While there is a vast amount of equipment in any call center, you must specifically consider those pieces of equipment whose failure will stop you from functioning. The first and most critical device to be considered is your ACD server. Within this server are many components, and most all of them will have a disastrous effect should they fail. For this reason it is imperative to have a system with the most redundancy possible, with redundant hard drives and power supplies.
In addition it is critical to keep a spare for all parts that cannot have redundancy within the server itself. So any component within the server whose failure will keep it from functioning needs to have a spare ready to be utilized at a moment’s notice. This can make a difference between minutes or days of down time. Considering most call center’s revenue is based on minutes these days, this is a large difference in revenue. If you want to have true redundancy, consider having a complete backup ACD server that can be put together using your spare parts to save on cost.
Additional equipment that must be considered in a call center environment would be anything that will stop the calls from getting from your ACD to your representatives. For example, it is pertinent to have a spare switch to ensure your network is up and running properly at all times. It is also important to consider the additional hardware requirements if you have remote staff, and the level of importance here is directly related to the amount of staff you have working outside your office. In a case where half or more of your staff are remote, you must ensure redundancy on the server your remote staff uses to connect to your network.
While it is extremely good practice to have redundancy for all peripherals, these are not mission critical. You many find yourself unable to send faxes or emails, or unable to pull up a website you need in order to effectively handle a call, should you not have backups of your peripherals, but they will not stop you from picking up a call and helping a customer.
Another major area of disaster preparedness in the call center industry is power. Without sustained power, you lose your ACD, and you are unable to function. A generator backup is a must for any call center, and natural gas is preferred, as the supply is not limited and it can sustain you for days or even weeks at a time. Your generator should be tested on a regular basis, with a full load transfer periodically to ensure it is functioning properly. It does little good to have a generator if it does not function when you need it most during a sustained power loss.
There is always a small lapse of power when transferring to a generator during a power outage. For this reason it is very good practice to have uninterrupted power supplies (UPS) on all critical equipment. Without this you will have some down time even with a generator. Do your homework when deciding on the proper UPS setup for your business. Ensure they are large enough to handle any load you will transfer to them. Also remember while your main purpose for a UPS is to sustain your equipment for a few minutes while transferring to your generator, they should be powerful enough to sustain your equipment for some time in case your generator does fail.
Internet connectivity is another possible area of outage for many call centers but not for all. This becomes more critical if you employ remotes, and the more you employ, the more critical it becomes. Keep in mind that remotes cannot connect to your server without coming in through some type of Internet-based connection in most situations. For this reason it is good practice to have a backup in place here as well. For example, if you have a T-1 for your Internet connectivity, consider a cable Internet backup to at least give you some connection should your main provider fail. This way you can still get your remote staff connected. Again, this may not take you completely out of business, but if you have 75 percent of your staff outside your main facility and you lose them, you are also going to lose 75 percent of your calls. When this happens you run the risk of frustrating a great deal of clients, not to mention every call missed equals additional lost revenue.
Probably the most critical area of possible outage in a call center environment is your telephone lines. Without the phone lines to bring the calls in, you can have everything else working in perfect order and you still have no business. Unfortunately, this area is also the most difficult for which to provide redundancy. There are many ways you can lose your telephone lines. Probably the most common is an outage on the part of your provider. This type of outage can last minutes, hours, or days. It is important to have a very strong relationship with your provider, and have someone you can contact during a loss who can help you “light a fire” to restore service. Customer service is a critical factor to consider when choosing a provider.
There is a way, however, to provide redundancy for this type of outage. Most call centers have multiple T-1’s or PRI spans that bring in their calls. It is good practice to have at least some of your lines come from a different provider. That way if the issue is provider related, you still have some ability to bring calls in. Should you employ this practice, it is important you have a planned process to roll your call volume from one provider to the other. These outages are generally short, and while they can certainly have a negative effect on your business, they are not usually severe enough to cause you to lose clients.
A call center owner’s biggest fear is generally the actual physical cutting of the lines coming into their building. Seeing a crew working in front of your building and digging can cause nightmares. This would be the most difficult issue to overcome, and the most difficult for which to provide redundancy. When this happens there is nothing coming in at all from any provider. There are ways to prepare for this type of situation, though they can be difficult and sometimes costly.
One option would be to work with another call center that may be willing to handle your volume in this type of situation. In this type of situation you must clearly define the expectations in advance, so both parties are clear on the process should this become necessary to employ. They may simply be available to answer your calls and inform them that, due to an emergency, they are unable to assist at this time and to please call again later.
You may work out a situation where they can actually provide service for specific emergent calls. Or you may even work out a situation where they will maintain a redundant copy of your information so they are able to assist your callers completely. This will largely depend on the type of call center you run, the capabilities of the call center you are partnering with, and the volume at the time of the outage. Remember, the more involved the plan, the more they are able to do for you, the more costly and time intensive it is to maintain the backup plan in this area.
A disaster can present itself in many forms and at any time. While it is impossible to predict them, it is critical to prepare for them. For many businesses a disaster recovery plan is acceptable, but for the call center industry, a disaster preparedness plan is much more effective and much more necessary. During an actual disaster it can be very stressful and difficult to consider what to do next. Having the process clearly defined in advance makes it much easier to employ. It is good practice to take the time to define the possible points of failure and know what to do should the unfortunate day come when you face these situations. Be prepared.
About The Author: Trisha Stenberg is the president of Time Communications, an inbound call center specializing in customer service located in St. Paul, Minn. Stenberg has worked in the industry for 12 years and has experienced many of the types of disasters described in this article.
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