Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Blizzards? No Problem: 4 Cases for Virtual Call Centers in Natural Disasters

Rob Duncan

Regardless of where your brick-and-mortar call center is located, the reality is you may find your business at the harsh mercy of Mother Nature.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently updated its forecast for the 2010 hurricane season. From June 1st to November 30th, there is a 70 percent probability that the Atlantic Basin region will experience 14 to 20 named storms and 8-12 hurricanes, 4-6 of which will be major hurricanes. According to Gerry Bell, Ph.D., lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, "All indications are for considerable activity during the next several months. There is a high likelihood that the season could be very active, with the potential of being one of the more active on record."

For brick-and-mortar call centers located in the Gulf states or Eastern seaboard, the threat posed by hurricanes represents a serious operational challenge. However, hurricanes are not the only natural disasters that regularly impact call center operations. Many areas with a high concentration of call centers face annual floods, tornadoes and blizzards. In fact, the NOAA also suggests there is an increased chance of organized tornado activity for the Gulf Coast region this winter.

1. Avoid Service Interruptions with Virtual Contact Centers

Most companies have disaster recovery plans, including how to restore data systems, get employees back to work, or reinstate utilities. But most of these plans focus on what to do after a disaster, not during one. When small, local businesses are faced with impending closures, their customers typically are affected as well, which means they know the reason behind service interruptions. However, for organizations with national operations, closing the impacted facility means customers calling from an unaffected area will experience interrupted service, busy signals and long wait or hold times. These customers don’t know about the natural disaster and will instead blame the company for poor customer service, which can adversely affect your brand, damage loyalty and even cause your customers to switch to a competitor.

In today’s highly competitive, 24/7 society, providing business continuity during disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes is an incredibly compelling advantage of the virtual contact center model. With true geographic diversity and an advanced technology infrastructure, home-based customer contact solutions provide important peace-of-mind in times of crisis:

2. Virtual Agents are Always Available

Virtual call centers recruit, train and manage employees across the United States. In fact, a program with 500 agents will likely have employees in more than 30 states and several hundred different cities. This dispersed workforce allows virtual centers to re-route calls to trained professionals in unaffected parts of the nation, maintaining proper staffing levels and delivering uninterrupted call resolution. In contrast, when employees are unable to reach a physical call center, the only option is to shut down the facility and let calls go unanswered.

3. Extra Resources Provide Help When It’s Needed Most

Home-based, virtual call centers can access the largest, skilled resource pool in the nation. The nature of this model allows virtual centers to increase the number of agents available to answer phones within minutes. With no commute, home-based agents can simply pick up their headset, log on to the computer and begin taking calls immediately. This speed and efficiency stands in stark contrast to traditional centers, which are left with no other option but to cajole unscheduled employees to drive into the facility. One call to a home-based partner provides immediate access to extra resources at a time when providing service through brick-and-mortar staff is not possible.

4. Network Connectivity is Consistent

Just as the workforce is distributed with a virtual contact center, so too is the IT infrastructure. Any reputable virtual center will have state-of-the-art Tier 1 data centers in multiple U.S. locations. Each data center provides a highly available solution with uninterruptible power supplies, backup generators and multiple electrical feeds from local power grids. Connectivity to these centers is also covered through relationships with multiple, reputable providers such as Global Crossing, Level3, AT&T and Verizon. Should unforeseen events sever connectivity to one area, virtual centers can seamlessly re-route connectivity to another network. Customers in unaffected areas will not experience any service interruption.

When a call center closes, even for a short time, customers from other areas of the country still need help. These callers are frustrated when they encounter unanticipated busy signals or long hold times. The ability to provide uninterrupted service even during a natural disaster like a hurricane is a quantifiable, money-saving advantage of the virtual call center model. With consistent availability of experienced staff and an advanced technology infrastructure, at-home customer contact centers are well-suited for providing business continuity.

Perhaps your business has remained unscathed from severe weather or other service-impacting events. If so, that’s great – for now. If not, then you know how important it is to have a well-crafted business continuity strategy for your customer service operation. Make a plan now before the next storm hits, because providing high-quality, consistent service at a reasonable cost is essential even when the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky.