Call Center Outsourcing for Disaster Recovery

Hurricane Rita was the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense tropical cyclone observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Rita caused $10 billion in real and personal property damage on the US Gulf Coast in September 2005 and was the 17th named storm, 10th hurricane, fifth major hurricane, and third Category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and the second hurricane to hit EPA region 6 (TX, LA, NM, OK and AR) in consecutive months.

Rita made landfall on September 24, near the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It continued on through parts of southeast Texas. The storm surge caused extensive damage along the Louisiana and extreme southeastern Texas coasts and completely destroyed some coastal communities. The storm killed seven people directly; many others died in evacuations and from indirect effects.

Officials requested residents in storm surge areas to evacuate their homes on Wednesday, September 21. About a third who evacuated heeded the warning then and took to the road. That evening’s forecast, the most ominous of the week, brought a larger response, more than half who evacuated left Thursday.

Technology improvements and sensitivity to the magnitude of the potential danger (spurred by the previous month’s hurricane Katrina) offered a two-day window for disaster planning and implementation. Unfortunately, most companies had still not prepared for the extended continuance of business operations. Most disaster planning in small, medium and even some large companies focuses on recovery, not continuance.

A Case Study: Business Continuity Is More Than Restoring a Back-up Tape

Faced with the potential closure of their corporate headquarters and numerous offices and facilities, as well as evacuated employees, a regional corporation in retail was faced with logistical issues far exceeding normal disaster recovery planning and implementations. Data and MIS operations were moved to another company-owned location; corporate functions, headquarters, and logistics command were disbursed into multiple locations. Business continuance needed to be implemented. Employees were being evacuated; no clear recovery date could be planned for; and the business couldn’t afford to just shut down and wait.

While some of the losses could be covered from insurance such as inventory loss and property damage, other losses, such as opportunity loss and — in the case of this company — collections couldn’t be easily recovered or made up at a later date. Past due credit, like fresh fish, goes bad quickly. When managed, consumer credit adds to a company’s sales, and in many cases is a separate profit center for the company, which can be as profitable as the core business itself. But when mismanaged or uncollected, it can devastate a company.

On September 21, 2005, two days before Rita reached the shores of Texas, an Austin, TX-based service provider of call center services, E Communication Advantage (ECA), received a call from the retail organization, which was in need of immediate call center services. Once Hurricane Rita hit land, the company’s entire call center operations were shut down due to damages from the hurricane, lack of staff due to evacuations, and lack of support infrastructure such as reliable utilities and telecommunications. In fact, no reliable public utilities or services were available in the area for at least four to six weeks.

The initial request from the client company to ECA was for 20 to 25 “leased” seats, plus four additional supervisor seats, and 20 to 25 outsourced call center seats for inbound and outbound collections, for a total of 40 to 50 seats. While outsourced call center seats are completely outsourced services, seat “leasing” is a hybrid where everything is provided — excluding the human caller. Computers, telephony, Internet connections, cubicles, utilities, rest room facilities, training facilities, parking, etc. would all need to be provided.

Data exchanges, executive oversight, human resources, payroll and other functions would all be required to interface with the service provider quickly and efficiently. A host of logistical and human issues needed to be addressed, including the transportation and lodging of displaced employees, the temporary replacement of employees to sustain the business, training, supervision, and monitoring. Credit collections are subject to a myriad of state and federal laws. Typically, the client company’s training procedures required callers to have at least a week of training and pass competency tests. A minimum core staff of volunteer employees and managers were recruited temporarily to relocate to Austin to provide a baseline of services and support.

Of the 100-plus employee callers, 25 came to Austin (to cover the leased seats 12 hours per day) with four supervisors to continue the operations by September 24, 2005. Complementing the employees were 20 ECA employees providing 12 hours of coverage per day. These latter were trained in under a day due to the circumstances. A few days later this core team was joined by an additional 20 evacuated employees and an additional supervisor. ECA was requested to increase to 210 outsourced agents providing two shifts with hours of operation from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

With detailed supervision, extensive co-operation between the client company’s employees and the cohabitating outsourced callers, this ramp-up was accomplished in fewer than five days. These outsourced levels continued until October 14.

Success in Outsourcing Call Center Operations

From September 23 to October 14, ECA collections on behalf of the client company were approximately $21 million to $25 million. Through the dedication of the displaced workers and supervisors, the service provider agents, and critical hands-on management, the business continuation program was meeting the internal collection metrics of the client company.

On October 7, the client company was able to resume partial operations in its headquarters. As a result, it reduced the number of call center seats to 71 (with the same hours as above), and some of the employees and supervisors returned home to pick up the pieces of their lives.

On October 14, ECA’s management team met with the client company’s executive team to discuss the disaster recovery/business continuation results of ECA and the opportunity to continue the program. From this meeting the retailer extended the outsourced work until October 31. However, they reduced the call center seats from 71 to 40, as more of their facilities had become operational and were ramping back up to original levels.

The disaster recovery project ceased on October 31, as the client company was back to full operations for its call center collections efforts. The lessons learned from the project were integrated into the client company’s disaster recovery/business continuity program.

The outsourcing costs for the entire period were estimated at $600,000, plus temporary living expenses, which would be offset by the deferred costs from employees who didn’t participate with the temporary program at alternate locations.

At the same time, the camaraderie among employees, supervisors and service provider agents was critical to the success of this program. The client also discovered that displaced employees, who were remaining productive and earning compensation, had become truly dedicated and loyal to the company.

Lessons Learned in Outsourcing Call Center Operations for Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery is not business continuance.

Computer back-ups restore data — not businesses. Critical business functions need to be classified and documented with regard to their effect on the business short and long term. Recovery times, requirements for staffing, skill set and technology support requirements should be part of the business continuation program.

Acting early, even a few days earlier than the general populous, in the face of a potential disaster can sustain your business.

Staff Will Need Housing

One of the biggest challenges companies have had after a disaster is finding lodging for relocated employees. Since the United States has had numerous disasters over the last five years, many companies are trying to plan ahead by negotiating the reservations of hotel rooms or extended stay lodging. Some hotels chains are charging a minimum of $250,000 to reserve groups of rooms in advance. Hotels compare these reservation plans to insurance policies since the rooms will be there if and when a company and its employees need it.

Reserve Your Seats Today!

Call center space can be reserved for disasters also. The reserved space can come in several flavors with various levels of coverage, guarantees and cost. The first level is usually a “shared agent group.” These agents are a shared resource, since they train on several client programs and are capable of handling numerous types of calls and processes. This coverage guarantees that you’ll have a reserve call center available to answer the company’s inbound calls from its customers. Once a disaster hits, all calls are seamlessly routed to the service provider call center. The service provider’s shared agents are trained in advance to answer these calls in a specific manner. Usually these calls are general in nature, and most often messages are taken and forwarded back to the client company for future follow up.

Reserving call center space requires a monthly minimum that can range from $2,500 to $5,000 for standard business hours. This charge is similar to the hotel reservation charge and ensures that the service provider will have agents standing by to answer the client’s customer calls. A per-minute charge is activated once the inbound calls start after a disaster. A per-minute charge covers any expense above and beyond the monthly minimum charge. Included in the monthly minimum are the shared agents, call routing, automatic call distributor (ACD) call requirements, daily ACD reporting, project management and agent management.

The second level of call center outsourcing is provided through dedicated agents. These agents would be trained specifically to handle only calls for a single client. They’d have shared access to the client company’s internal system via a Web application or virtual private network (VPN). Prior to a disaster all of the internal systems, telephony, call routing, and ACD messaging would be tested and secured for future use. After a disaster hits, all systems would be activated and agents would be deployed.

For this service there’s a scale of monthly minimum charges to ensure that seats and space are available. These charges are based on the complexity and design of the entire outsourcing plan and how much equipment and planning is needed in advance of the disaster. In addition, there would be a per-minute or per-hourly charge for the dedicated agents. This will depend on what level of experience the agents will need to handle these calls. Included in the monthly minimum are the dedicated agents, call routing, ACD call requirements and programming, daily ACD reporting, project management, IT support and agent management.

What To Know about “Leased Seats”

The third level of support deployed by call centers is the “leased seat” service. This service allows a company to move its entire call center management and staff to the service provider’s call center. This is a true “plug-and-play” solution. Below is a breakdown of the entire service, as you might see in a call center agreement.

  1. A “leased seat” is defined as a dedicated workstation including computer, monitor, telephone headsets, Internet bandwidth at T-1 speed and PSTN provisioning, telephony and other necessary hardware and software required for a service provider’s clients to operate effectively and efficiently in the performance of their live and interactive inbound and outbound call center solutions. The service provider is responsible for providing and maintaining the leased seats. For each leased seat, the call center will make available the use of the ACD, using computer telephony integration (CTI) if appropriate or predictive and preview dialing. Application development for the ACD and IVR is included with the leased seat; however, any modification that requires an outside consultant will be passed on to client at cost.
  2. The service provider provides programming resources for scripting and report design.
  3. The service provider provides technical and desktop support for its own computer networking, hardware and telephony.
  4. On request, the service provider provides supervisor stations, including all items listed in the first item above. The supervisor stations will also include enhanced telesets (an IP phone). CMS software will be provided to the client’s supervisors on a one-to-15 workstation ratio of supervisors to agents.
  5. The client will have access to real-time review of agent statistics, project status, monitoring and whisper coaching functionality.
  6. The service provider provides a client adequate training space and the technical ability to conduct remote monitoring. The service provider provides training for the client on the ACD and interactive voice response (IVR) systems.
  7. The service provider will make available to the client project management and call center expertise within their current staff.
  8. The client will have access to all common areas, including the training room, conference room, library, and kitchen areas.
  9. The service provider will make the leased seats available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  10. The client will provide its own supervisors and agents for projects where the service provider is providing a leased seat.

Similar to the other services mentioned, you may get hit with a monthly charge to reserve these seats in the event of a disaster. It ranges based on the number of seats that are leased. The more seats leased, the smaller the monthly rate.

In the event of a disaster, your organization’s ability to continue operations can make the difference between keeping its doors open and finding them shuttered permanently. Although call-center operations are only one aspect of a comprehensive disaster recovery program, it is a crucial one that will allow you to stay in touch with customers and clients until normalcy returns. Smart outsourcing can play a major role in that part of the plan.

Useful Links

ECA, E Communication Advantage
http://www.eca.com/

Diagrams showing the call center IT infrastructure for ECA, encompassing both outsourced seats and “leased seats.”
/content/c061016b.asp