Steps to identify the people, data and resources to bring to bear in an emergency.
As a manager, why would you need to create a contingency plan? If you’ve planned well for that new software launch or system migration, what possibly could go wrong? OK, so that was a loaded question.
We have all been there before—if anything can go wrong, it will. That’s the thing with risk management: While you have the plan to mitigate risk (i.e., what actions will be taken before the event to reduce potential problems from occurring or contain their effects), it is also prudent to have a backup plan to help you deal with everything you couldn’t mitigate.
Fact: There are things that cannot be mitigated simply because you can never think of every possible scenario that you’re bound to encounter.
A Contingency Planning Intervention
As contact center leaders, we develop a contingency plan for those unforeseen possibilities and so that we can sleep soundly at night. However, a common mistake that managers often make is attempting to write a response for every eventuality. Stop the madness! Stay out of that rabbit-hole or you will end up with pages and pages of what-if scenarios. It will only end up scaring everyone involved and keep you up at night thinking of even worse scenarios.
If this sounds familiar, you may be in need of a contingency planning intervention. Ever spend time thinking about what would happen if the day after a software installation multiple agents call out sick, your call system goes down, the building AC goes out, and the local pizza shop is closed? Yes? Well it is time to stop that nonsense and get practical. Let’s talk about how to do that.
Keep a Sharp Lookout for Icebergs
The planning process usually all comes back to people and contingency plans are no different. The first question I ask is: “Who is watching out for the iceberg?” The first step in developing a contingency plan is to identify who is going to be on the lookout. Maybe it will be you or perhaps you will be delegating that role so that you can be more involved with checking on your larger team. It is perfectly acceptable to have multiple lookouts—just ensure that the lines of communication are open and expectations are set.
A good way to set expectations is to ensure that the team knows when a tipping point has passed. Identify the various “triggers” (i.e., data alerts) that the team needs to watch for, and then identify who will be notified. Who do the alerts escalate to and in what timeframe? Is it immediate, is it watched for 30 minutes? Clearly define those lines of communication.
Identify a crossfunctional team to manage the communication effort. This team should include individuals from various parts of the organization who will be notified of potential problems. Putting in place an early notification process with buy-in from a team of resources who are qualified to troubleshoot problems provides reassurance to the larger team and keeps them calm when things begin to go from bad to worse.
Use KPIs to Determine When to Take Action
Speaking of the iceberg. When do you know that you have a significant problem on your hands? I’m not talking about the general bump in the road. I am talking about the “ship is going to sink” type of problem.
Building a good contingency plan, at its heart, means identifying when and how you know there is a problem and ensuring that others who will help you fix the problem agree with your assessment. You cannot effectively respond to a problem if some people think it is an issue and others think it’s just a bump in the road.
In this situation, your internal KPIs can help to build consensus. You have the data at your disposal that shows what a typical day looks like; utilize that information to set the expectation and thresholds for escalation. Great examples to think about are impacts to queues and call times. For instance, if we experience a prolonged 5% increase in average queue block or 10% increase in call times, our lookout (remember that person you previously identified) will notify the contingency escalation team. Then, much like an outage response, the lookout will keep notifying the team at every stated period (e.g., every 30 minutes, every hour, etc.) until there is a change in the data. If the data then crosses a new threshold, the next escalation is sent and so forth. Making sure that the team on the same page before there is an issue that requires a contingency response will help to ensure that getting the plan in action will not be a problem in and of itself.
Identify Your Resources
Resources, aka people from other people’s teams. It usually all comes back to people. I think I read that somewhere before. Writing a strategic response contingency plan will only work if the resources to respond are prepositioned and know what might be required from them.
To create the awareness and acceptance that additional resources may be called upon, you need to circulate your plan. For example, you have identified those KPIs, so now you need to write down the basic response and let your crossfunctional teams know: “Hey everyone, once we cross threshold 1, we will enact a level 1 response, which requires the following (on-call resources to login, alternate IVR messages, etc.).” Follow this up with threshold B/C and Level 2 and 3 resource needs. Then check and double-check with your partners to ensure that those resources will be available to your team, as they may be also identified for other contingency plans. If that becomes the case, simply work to prioritize which contingency plans are the most important.
Define the Response Effort
So we’ve got alarm bells going off and the lookout has notified the team. Now it is time to act. What are we going to do? Get more agents on the phones? This is not always an option, is it? Call in the cavalry? Does the cavalry know what they are going to do to help? Ultimately, this is where your contingency plan comes to life on paper.
Defining the basic response effort before the event occurs is the contingency plan! Remember, you don’t have to plan for every eventuality in the rabbit hole because you are building a plan at the strategic response level.
- You have an identified lookout.
- You have management buyin as to when there is an issue.
- You have identified a crossfunctional team who will be there to assist you and provide resources.
Have a technical problem affecting the phone system queue? IT is on it. Have a need to communicate to customers that, while the phones are busy, they can use the website or chat to get assistance? No problem, marketing can get that message out to the customer base. These are the primary components of a solid basic contingency plan. Spending the time to talk with your partners in advance, sharing your data and your potential resource request in the event of an emergency will help to keep the lines of communication operating smoothly when things are falling apart.
Create a Step-Down Plan
Finally, there will come a time when things begin to return to a sense of normalcy. It almost never feels like that will happen in the moment of a disaster, but things usually work out just fine in the end. So, just like having a rising threshold level helps to define resource needs, you need build the other side—the step-down plan. For instance, if you were at a Level 3 event, and Level 1 is normal, what do you do when the data tells you that the situation has cooled to a Level 2 event? Who is the first resource released?
When is the backup released, etc.? You will get faster buyin from a crossfunctional team when you can demonstrate that your plan has specific instructions for releasing resources when the situation is stabilizing. So now might be the time to get those KPIs back out and determine your step-down plan from “all hands on deck” to “situation normal.”
When you get back to normalcy, I cannot stress enough the importance of taking a moment to celebrate and say thank you. Make sure that your team of backups knows how important they were to resolving the situation, and also recognize the efforts of your daily agents who have been in the heavy grind through all the chaos. If you really want to differentiate your management style and build a cohesive team, taking a moment to personally say thank you or hand-writing a note of thanks goes a long way.
Finally, once things are truly calm but not too far removed from the event, it is important to pull up and talk about what the team learned and what can be done to improve the process in the future.
Contingency plans are ultimately about identifying the people, data and resources you are going to bring to bear in an emergency. Responding to an emergency with a solid contingency plan in place will ensure that the right number of sandbags are in the right place to hold back the rising water. Remember, you can’t stop the water, but you can control the sandbags.