• November 1, 2005
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

When Disaster Strikes

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Many managers and executives say their CRM system is a lifesaver, but they may not realize just how true that statement can be until disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina left more than devastation when it struck the South this summer. It also left doubts about our ability to respond to disasters when it comes to those that strike our own shores. Communication failures at every level, from first responders to federal agencies, resulted in slow reaction, poor coordination, and ultimately suffering and loss of life and property far beyond what was expected. Emergency services operate like any other business; those with weak communication and slow response to customer needs fail while good CRM practices can greatly improve an organization's ability to take care of its customers and improve the bottom line. In this case, the bottom line is lives saved. When announcing the new AppExchange community at its Dreamforce conference in September, Salesforce.com noted that some of its CRM applications would be available, immediately and free of charge, to any organization seeking to save lives or manage response to a disaster. These crisis management apps were already in place when Katrina struck, which enabled the United Way to coordinate all of its relief efforts. The CRM on-demand vendor also helped create people-finder project katrinalist.net, and a stranded-pet locator service. These commendable efforts are only part of what must be put in place well ahead of natural or other disasters to speed relief to those in deepest need, says Roger Sumner, CTO for Concerto Software. "One of the biggest problems in coordinating disaster relief is the loss of infrastructure--power and telecommunications in a region go down, and that puts a strain on everything connected to them." Phone companies typically have some amount of excess capacity built in as part of their business continuity plan so they can handle overflow from all the rerouted calls. That standby technological capacity isn't enough by itself, though. People are needed to staff the lines and deal with the public. Sumner notes that good contact center systems include detailed scripting capability, allowing people who don't usually service customers to deliver information appropriately and consistently. "A good IVR system or Web self-service is needed to screen out calls that aren't urgent. We're also seeing more use of outbound dialing to tell people in an affected area that the company knows about the service outage, and even offer a suggested time to repair." Emergency personnel like police, fire, and rescue workers need paging applications and dispatching tools to get resources on scene as fast and as efficiently as possible. "Agencies are using technology that is great for smaller emergencies but not for regional disasters," Sumner says. This became clear as rescue workers around New Orleans discovered their communications systems were overloaded or unable to talk to those of other agencies. "Agencies and businesses alike have to be aware of interoperability standards," Sumner says. "People don't even consider that they have resources which can work together." VoIP, session initiation protocol (SIP), Web services, and SOA are all means to accomplish this. "For example, if you plug any SIP phone into any SIP environment, it will work and the user can establish an identity to pitch in and help. ODBC [open database connectivity] lets different computer systems share database information, so that's something else that can be leveraged." Weathering the Storm An organization's pipeline to its customers is indispensable, especially in times of disaster--contact centers must continue to be accessible to both customers and customer-facing employees. The recent destruction from hurricanes Katrina and Rita is a devastating reminder of the need for advanced contingency preparation. Maggie Klenke, founding partner at The Call Center School, offers quick tips for molding a comprehensive strategy:
  • Take control. Recovery planning is often deferred to an organization's IT department, but those initiatives may exclude the systems and issues of the call center. Instead, craft disaster plans to supplement the IT department's efforts.
  • Assemble and assess. Form a team to identify anything that could possibly go wrong, and then determine the severity of those potential issues. "Build a chart that says here's a risk, how big a deal it would be if it happened, and how likely it is to happen," Klenke suggests.
  • Decide between prevention and recovery. "Sometimes recovery's the right answer because prevention is so expensive, and sometimes prevention is the correct answer," Klenke says. "But if we haven't looked at the tradeoff, we're going to put a lot of money into things that probably don't pay off."
  • Test the plan regularly. Testing will allow organizations to truly determine the success of their continuity plans. "It's a paper tiger unless you test it," Klenke says, so take a what-if approach, "but don't create a disaster to do the test." For organizations that outsource contact center operations, business continuity efforts should not be simply handed to the services provider. "I'd suggest they tour a company's network operations center, ask how often the vendor reroutes calls, [and] find out if the outsource partner has certified business continuity planners on staff," says Carol Fox, director of risk management at Convergys. "It's one thing to [say] we have disaster recovery plans. It's a much different assessment if you see what those plans actually look like and how the company has responded." --Coreen Bailor
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