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Do We Need Disaster Planning?

Do We Need Disaster Planning?

Do We Need Disaster Planning?

How contact centers can best plan and respond when disasters strike.

Disasters can and will strike at any time, anywhere. Call centers must be prepared, first and foremost, to protect the lives of employees and, secondarily, to ensure information and service to customers who would not be aware of the imminent danger to the centers or, worst case, the event that had hit them.

Case in point from personal experience. Tornadoes are arguably one of the scariest storms one can face. They strike suddenly with immense ferocity and destruction. Consequently, they are responsible for huge deaths, injuries, and countless dollars of damage.

With my call center in Indiana, tornadoes are, unfortunately, part of our reality. One that we almost came face-to-face with a few years ago.

It was 4 pm, and suddenly I heard the tornado warning over the speaker in our suite.

I went around to all the agents and instructed them what to say and do; our BPO technician turned off the phones and initiated the adverse weather message. This informed callers that they could use the self-service options as customer service wasn’t available due to a tornado warning in effect.

We evacuated the suite and had everyone assemble in our floor’s lobby, as we had to stay away from the windows. Staying away from windows is crucial during a tornado because its immense force can launch glass fragments, putting anyone nearby at significant risk.

Each department leader was in charge of taking attendance of their team members. Meanwhile, one of the leaders monitored the tornado warning while we waited in the lobby.

It was over an hour, after which we were allowed back into our suite. The key was getting all our agents onto the phones after removing the warning message.

So before we were allowed in, the call center team lead and I asked all our agents to go to their desks, log back into their systems, and be ready to take calls.

As soon as the message was removed and phone lines back on, calls came back to back for 15 to 20 minutes but then slowed down.

Gradually everything returned to normal. Until the next time…

Why Proactive BCP and DRP Are Critical

Most times, we tend to react to situations rather than being proactive. However, relying on reactive measures leaves our judgment susceptible to various biases, including experience, expediency, and safety.

This is where the business continuity plan (BCP) development emerges. The BCP can be either simple based on the size, type of business, and contact center, or a little more involved.

Establishing effective communication channels and protocols is crucial for timely and accurate information dissemination during emergencies. Defining how information will be shared among employees, managers, and customers is vital.

In tandem with a BCP, there needs to be a disaster recovery plan (DRP) because disasters will eventually hit your operations and your people. Again, like the BCP, a DRP would need to be shaped and scaled to the business and contact center.

Here are a few tips to remember while developing a BCP and a DRP.

1. Conduct a Business Impact Analysis (BIA). During a disruption(s), it is vital to identify the critical business functions and processes within your call center. These may include handling calls and maintaining Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Immediate attention should be given to functions based on the potential risk and prioritized recovery efforts.

2. Define recovery objectives. Determine each critical function’s maximum tolerable downtime (MTD) and recovery time objectives (RTO).

MTD indicates the allowable offline time for your call center, while RTO represents the maximum acceptable downtime for each process. For instance, if your phone system experiences an outage, your goal might be restoring customer calls within two hours.

Protecting Remote Workers

Agents working from home, either full-time or hybrid, also face disasters. Therefore, measures must be taken to protect them.

Since our team is hybrid, where there are days that they work from home, we do our best to ensure their safety. Here is a summary of the steps we have in place that other organizations can consider adopting:

  • Communication channels. Set up reliable channels for agents to stay in touch during emergencies, such as a supervisor’s cellphone number. During orientation, we give agents a card with all the call center’s important phone numbers.
  • Check-In system. Create a system for regular check-ins to monitor agent safety and well-being. Usually, if an agent is a no-call-no-show, I contact the agent via SMS; if there is no response within a day, I inform HR to contact the agent.
  • Emergency contact information. Request an emergency contact person and phone number.
  • Agent training on emergency procedures. Conduct training sessions to educate agents on specific procedures for different emergency scenarios.
  • Encourage emergency kits. Advise agents to prepare personal emergency kits with essential items. I recall this was useful for an agent who was evacuated from her home due to a forest fire.

—Mark Pereira

3. Develop a communication plan. Establishing effective communication channels and protocols is crucial for timely and accurate information dissemination during emergencies.

Defining how information will be shared among employees, managers, and customers is vital. Additionally, backup communication options should be identified if the primary channels are unavailable, such as utilizing social media or sending SMS updates.

4. Implement data backup and recovery. Regularly ensure critical data and customer information backup, guaranteeing redundancy and security. Store backups securely and contemplate utilizing cloud-based or off-site storage, though I would lean towards cloud storage today. Conduct thorough tests on data recovery processes to confirm their effectiveness.

5. Formulate incident response procedures. A comprehensive set of instructions should be developed to handle various incidents and emergencies such as power outages, network failures, natural disasters, or cybersecurity breaches.

These instructions should provide detailed guidance on the necessary actions to be taken, assign employee roles, and establish escalation routes for reporting incidents and seeking assistance. The goal is to manage risks and minimize any potential downtime effectively.

A high-level natural disaster plan could include the following:

  • Monitor relevant weather alerts and warnings to identify potential natural disasters.
  • Activate emergency response procedures as outlined in the company’s DRP.
  • Ensure employee safety by evacuating the premises and providing clear instructions for evacuation routes and assembly points.
  • Establish communication channels to keep employees informed about the status of the natural disaster and any updates regarding office closures or remote work arrangements.
  • Coordinate with relevant authorities or emergency services for assistance, if required.
  • Document the incident, including the actions taken to ensure employee safety and any damages to the premises, for insurance claims and future disaster preparedness.

6. Establish alternative work locations. Identify alternative work locations or backup sites where your call center operations can be quickly relocated in case of a facility outage. Ensure these sites have the necessary infrastructure, equipment, and connectivity to support uninterrupted functions.

For example, our center adapted to a hybrid model after the COVID-19 pandemic. When a power outage affected ten cubicle spaces, we quickly implemented a plan to ensure uninterrupted operations.

We gradually transitioned agents to work-from-home, starting with three agents simultaneously while the remaining team worked from a conference room. This process continued until all agents were home.

Cold, Warm, and Hot Sites

Business continuity planning (BCP) uses a few terms to describe backup facilities. And they are critical when disasters strike to support those functions that require a portion or all of your operations to be on-premise instead of at home.

  • Cold Site. A facility without infrastructure or equipment is readily available. Requires setup and configuration before it can be used, resulting in a longer recovery time but less expensive to maintain.
  • Warm Site. A partially equipped site with pre-configured hardware, some software, and data backups. Faster setup than compared to a cold site. Requires some setup and configuration: a balanced cost and recovery time.
  • Hot Site. A fully operational and redundant facility mirroring the primary site’s infrastructure, systems, and data. Near-real-time synchronization with minimal data loss. Immediate recovery with no setup required. Most expensive but offers the shortest recovery time.

7. Train and educate employees. Conduct regular training sessions to familiarize your employees with the BCP and DRP. Ensure they understand their roles and responsibilities during emergencies. Provide clear instructions on responding to different scenarios and regularly conduct drills to practice and refine emergency procedures.

In addition to addressing natural disasters, agents should be provided with comprehensive cybersecurity training to effectively identify and respond to suspicious emails, ensuring higher protection against cyber threats.

Such training can be provided to agents through micro-learnings, if not monthly, then quarterly, because cyber criminals usually don’t wait for your employees to complete their annual cybersecurity before they strike.

A BCP and a DRP are invaluable in ensuring business continuity and disaster recovery, even though we cannot anticipate every scenario, such as a pandemic.

8. Streamline emergency preparedness and communication. Centralize your documentation in a single location accessible to all relevant stakeholders. This ensures easy access to the plans during emergencies and facilitates effective updates and communication.

Moreover, centralizing the procedures promotes consistency and coordination among departments or teams involved in recovery.

9. Test and review the plan: Conduct simulated exercises or drills to test your BCP and DRP. Assess the efficiency of your plan and make any required enhancements according to the outcomes. Ensure your plans are regularly updated to mirror any changes in your call center’s operations.

Risk Management

Categorizing risk is an effective method for managing risk in your center. This approach helps you understand the specific risks your call center may face. It allows you to prioritize efforts to avoid (removal of vulnerable software), mitigate (reducing its impact), transfer (outsourcing or insurance), or accept (such as weather, but you still need to monitor the risk) these risks.

Some common categories of risks include:

  • Operational risks are related to your call center’s day-to-day operations. Examples may include system failures, network outages, or staffing issues.
  • Technological risks are associated with technology, including cybersecurity threats, software vulnerabilities, or hardware failures.
  • External risks arise from external factors beyond your control, such as natural disasters or regulatory changes.
  • Human risks include risks related to human factors. Examples may consist of employee errors, inadequate training, or malicious activities.
  • Financial risks are associated with the financial aspects of your call center, such as budget constraints, economic fluctuations, or unexpected costs.

A BCP and a DRP are invaluable in ensuring business continuity and disaster recovery, even though we cannot anticipate every scenario, such as a pandemic.

It is still crucial to be prepared and have a plan rather than being unprepared and struggling to find solutions during a crisis.

As the saying goes, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." So, let’s ensure our centers hold steady in the face of adversity and keep the calls rolling in. Remember, customers do not take breaks, and neither should we!

When life throws a wrench, stay ahead with a good sense of humor (hopeful and based on the incident) and a plan in your back pocket. This will ensure your call center runs smoothly and keeps your agents sane.

Mark Pereira

Mark Pereira

Meet Mark Pereira, a passionate learning and development professional with a wealth of knowledge and experience. He is an experienced Trainer and On-Site Supervisor who has earned several certifications. These include the Certified Professional Trainer (C.P.T.), Certified Customer Service Professional (C.C.S.P.), and Modern Classroom Certified Trainer (M.C.C.T.). Combining his academic background in Commerce and Innovative Education and Teaching with practical experience, Mark is a valuable learning leader who boosts retention and productivity through proven teaching methods. He provides expert coaching to agents with empathy and skill and stays up-to-date with industry developments and advancements from his base in Indianapolis.

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