As the pandemic continues: Is your customer service ready for hurricane season?


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Just when businesses are moving to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, many must now contend with the 2020 hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs through November 30. And this year, predictions call for a more severe outlook than normal. How will your business respond and serve customers with the potential threat of multiple disasters?

In our line of work—ensuring nonstop customer service, we run the numbers, calculate the odds and allocate resources on paper and in real time. Figuring out “what if” and “then what” scenarios gives clients a measure of comfort and a sense of control when planning business continuity.

Usually, these situations come one at a time. Not today, however. Many businesses are facing two formidable foes in tandem—the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the start of 2020 hurricane season.

So now, not only does something wicked this way come, but it’s also already here—in spades.
Give a read: “As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, in the most recent NOAA outlook report for the 2020 hurricane season.

The combination of several climate factors is driving the strong likelihood for above-normal activity in the Atlantic this year. This means business planning goes from “what if” to “now what?.”
Just to run the numbers: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms, of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes, including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5). For comparison, an average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes.

Like those figures? Fold in the pandemic numbers, and you can understand why it is more important than ever to develop and continuously improve your business continuity plans.

Fluid and Flexible: Backup to the Backup
For contact centers, it’s not just a matter of having fortified, redundant operations. That has to be a given. Rather, they should be fluid, flexible and safe. Sure, swift and staffed to outmaneuver and outlast any storm. That requires the Big Three: mobility, scalability and sustainability—from the inside out, and well ahead of harm’s way.

That’s nearly impossible to do with brick-and-mortar call centers now reduced or shut down due to COVID-19 challenges. They’re boxed in as things are closing in, caught in the pandemic’s and a potential storm’s paths.

Take hurricanes alone. A case in point is Matthew, a Category 5 hurricane. Its fury far-reaching and devastation prolonged, Matthew spanned from the Caribbean to the Carolinas, from September 28 to October 10, 2016.

As it hit Jamaica, a client’s brick-and-mortar call center there was evacuated, with customer service shifting to remote contact center agents in California, Texas and Wyoming. Unrelenting, Matthew roared north, up the East Coast along Florida. Its ferocity forced the client’s second call center in Melbourne to be evacuated. Governor Rick Scott warned at the time: “This storm will kill you.”

Again, remote agents outside the storm’s swath picked up work as the client’s Floridian call center agents fled to safety. In this instance—and for other storms as well—the client had backup to the backup. Integrated physical and virtual contact center operations to ensure nonstop service, with plenty of on-demand resources at the ready.

Now imagine how that would play out, factoring in the double whammy of the pandemic. To survive, businesses need to be prepared times two, if not three, these days as a matter of course.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agrees. “Social distancing and other CDC guidance to keep you safe from COVID-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan you had in place,” Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA, said recently. “With tornado season at its peak, hurricane season around the corner, and flooding, earthquakes and wildfires a risk year-round, it is time to revise and adjust your emergency plan now.”

And if you weren’t convinced, for good measure he adds: “Natural disasters won’t wait, so I encourage you to keep COVID-19 in mind when revising or making your plan.”
In other words, prepare now to avoid being undone later.

Questions to Ask: Answers to Have
Resiliency and responsiveness must be built into your business continuity plan from the get-go. That requires asking the right questions, with thought-out answers and well-rehearsed plans in place.
As it relates to customer service, here are some bottom-line questions when developing the plan:
o Who is involved in its creation?
o Which other related operational areas should be addressed? IT? Communications?
o How would you respond to the fluctuation in customer inquiries, via phone, email or chat?
o Should you engage business process outsourcing (BPO) partners to assist?
o What do you need to respond to multiple or simultaneous disasters?

• When assembling your team:
o Who from your operation leads the charge? Are they adequately trained?
o Do you have enough backup agents standing by and where? Is the plan in hand?
o Are your business partners as secure as your own operations? Have you checked?
o Who from the client side needs to be involved?

• Once in place:
o Have your designated teams run through the different business-continuity scenarios? When was the last drill?
o Are you prepared to evacuate contact center agents and shift work remotely in a disaster? Have you tried it? Timed it?
o How stable and secure is your technology during these different scenarios? What about your business partners’?
o Short of Armageddon, have you said your prayers?

No Silver Bullets – A Silver Lining, Perhaps
Not offering any silver bullets here. Just some prudent thoughts, based on experience—good and bad.
And yes, running a contact center every day is challenging enough. Just think how overwhelming storms and other disasters will be if business continuity is left to chance. “Oh no” shouldn’t be an operational axiom.

As the pandemic continues, the hurricane season arrives—six months long and counting. New tempests with names such as Dolly, Omar and Nana await to blow through, which could compound our current healthcare crisis.

Take heart, though. For as horrible as COVID-19 is, it has steeled businesses in their resolve to survive and succeed. Apply that resourcefulness to get ready for the 2020 storms. And while you pray you never have to activate your business continuity plan, having one ensures you can serve your customers, especially when they need you most.

So, as you contemplate scenarios for multiple disasters, don’t perish the thought. Plan for it.

Kim Houlne
Years before the gig economy became of age, Kim Houlne turned the idea of an on-demand workforce into an industry. As Working Solutions founder, she pioneered virtual contact center services across the USA, later expanding operations into Canada. Her company launched its home-based business model in 1996, using a network of independent contractors. A graduate of the University of Georgia, she holds a Bachelor of Arts, with an emphasis in communications and humanities. In 2016, she delivered an alumni keynote address at the Communication Studies graduation.


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