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Five Ways to Prepare Your Customer Service Team for Enhanced Crisis Response

By Special Guest
Steven Petruk, President, Global Outsourcing Division, CGS
May 11, 2020

If you work in a contact center, you’re likely familiar with the terms disaster recovery and business continuity. Since the first call centers emerged in the 1960s, the common value statement has been scalability and variable costs. To deliver that value, a call center has to be prepared for the unpredictable.

Whether it’s the current coronavirus pandemic, an impending hurricane, earthquake or a wildfire, a top tier contact center will include business continuity as part of its solution so that, in difficult times, it is equipped to keep businesses running and customers confident. While most organizations have a disaster recovery plan, less than half of them cover physical security, and even less (37%) account for telecommunications.

Equipping enterprises for a disaster means revamping training, processes and technology to address a potentially and unpredictably changing landscape. If your business is feeling added stress from COVID-19-related inquiries, here are some best practices to consider.

Have a plan and work your plan

To be prepared to address the unknown, you must have a plan. Document the plan and break it into phases, type of emergency, solution types, etc. Document risk with mitigation strategies and have the plan ready. This will improve response time, decrease risk and minimize the impact to your clients’ business.

In regions where contact centers haven’t yet been fully impacted, now is the time to “work your plan,” including testing disaster recovery plans, such as failover options like redundant sites, access to cloud-based solutions and employee work from home processes. Be plagiaristic and learn from others. While each center will have unique requirements, why reinvent the basics when others have already completed many of the steps. Review their work and adjust to site-specific nuances  

While having a plan in place is crucial, contact centers that are not conducting tests might as well be operating without a plan. Research shows only 45 percent of IT administrators have tested their disaster recovery plans to determine if they will be successful in the event of an actual emergency. In particular, many customer service operations are transitioning to solutions that enable remote work. Testing your network performance, call quality and security parameters is crucial to make this transition a success. When it comes to disaster recovery, practice truly does make perfect.

Prepare for an influx of customer interactions

When it comes to disaster recovery and business continuity, embracing next-gen technology, such as robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI), have become more commonplace in call centers. These technologies complement the everyday duties of customer service agents, removing manual tasks and helping them scale and be more strategic in their interactions.

These technologies can be helpful in a variety of instances. For example, using an automated alert system, contact centers can push out a notice to thousands of customers at the same time. Additionally, AI-based bots can act as the first point of contact during a crisis customer engagement, explaining the situation and providing answers to many basic questions. For example, many retail stores shut down their in-person locations and are relying solely on digital channels for communication. Having automated tools in place to respond to frequently asked customer queries will help streamline communication and ensure customers promptly receive answers. It also allows human agents to spend more time with sensitive and complicated customer inquiries.

Of late, many service providers have adopted a hybrid human-machine approach to contact centers. Implementing RPA technology can free up workers’ time by augmenting some of the more repetitive tasks that contact center employees may be doing, such as reporting and filing. This allows humans the freedom to take on more strategic and elevated interactions, which are crucial in crisis scenarios.

Instruct your staff on the technical and emotional impact of a crisis

Properly educating staff may seem like a given, but training individuals in the context of an active situation is often more difficult to execute. Disaster recovery training should begin on an employee’s first day, and it must be localized for each venue. For example, parts of the Pacific Northwest are on fault lines. Individuals in that area might be more focused on preparing for earthquakes. Meanwhile, contact center employees in Florida have been trained on flooding and evacuation scenarios ahead of hurricane season.

However, employee instruction isn’t solely about the technical needs of the organization. It’s also important to consider the emotional coaching for agents in these stressful situations. Consider an internet outage. Hundreds of panicked remote workers are jumping on their phones, and many of them want a simple answer to, “How can I find out when my service will be available again?”

To ensure high-quality calls, resolved requests and consistent performance, customer service representatives need consistent and continual learning programs – not just when onboarding. Continual training enables agents to keep up to date on new products and be aligned with technology upgrades. For employees working remotely, mobile tools and devices (e.g., tablets and smartphones) can provide workers with on-demand training, helping them work on technical equipment that is not physically accessible. By using augmented reality (AR)-based technology, the customer service representative can gain knowledge virtually as needed. Instructional programs should also include coaching call center agents by conducting mock scenarios – presenting them with possible disaster situations and questions they may encounter with customers during an event.  

Consider a fresh approach for new crisis scenarios

As fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues, businesses and municipalities are getting creative. For example, the county of San Mateo, California recently decided to launch a public call center for residents with non-medical questions about the coronavirus open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to relieve the number of calls to emergency dispatchers and the County Health department by the community seeking guidance. The Emergency Operations Center is designed to support the County Health department response with coordinated resources and communication, freeing up healthcare workers to handle more pressing tasks.

Develop protective actions for life safety (evacuation, shelter, quarantine, lockdown)

A contact center’s most valuable asset is its people, and in times of crisis their safety is paramount. This involves speaking with emergency services including medical, fire and police to determine their knowledge of your facility and their expected response time to the facility.

Establishing strong disaster recovery and business continuity plans and continually reviewing and updating them are the most important strategic moves customer service outsourcing providers can make. Planning, along with training contact center employees and ensuring the center can reroute customers, as needed, to another facility will keep operations going and businesses running.

Finally, in today’s fast-paced and need-it-now environment, contact centers should leverage emerging technology balanced with human interaction to rapidly address customer queries while also calming customers’ nerves to build trust that they will get past the current situation. With these steps, contact centers will be better prepared to address the current – and future – crises.

About the author:  Steven Petruk, who joined CGS in 2019, has more than 20 years of experience in IT, infrastructure and customer service. Steve leads the company’s highly experienced executive and global delivery team in the development and implementation of technology-based outsourced solutions.  Prior to his current role, he served as Senior Vice President / Worldwide General Manager of Managed Services at Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. Before that Steve spent 17 years at IBM in numerous leadership and executive roles, the most recent of which was Vice President, Enterprise Services, responsible for Integrated Communications, End User Services, ITS Consulting Practice and Data Center Service product lines in the U.S.  Steve entered the Information Technology business in project management where he learned the art of selling through delivery excellence. During his career, he has leveraged that deep delivery background and deal making experience to deliver high-quality solutions to hundreds of clients generating well over $20 billion in company revenues.  He is a graduate of the University of California at Northridge, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Edited by Erik Linask
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