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Eliminating the disaster in disaster planning

Research shows North American contact centers are among the world's least prepared for disasters. One New Orleans center explains how its date with disaster was narrowly averted.

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This summer, the Mayflower National Life Insurance Co. began devising a concentrated disaster recovery plan.

The company's New Orleans-based office got the plan in place just in time. On Aug. 29 Hurricane Katrina hit the city, knocking out power, flooding the streets and leaving thousands fending for their lives.

"We hadn't quite finished it," said Terri McCormack, director of operations. "We were close but we hadn't tested it yet. We had a live test."

Developing and testing a disaster recovery plan had been on the agenda for years at Mayflower, but there always seemed to be so much else to do. But operating out of an area where hurricanes are almost an inevitability, McCormack knew it was only a matter of time, and this year hired Strategic Contact, a Beaverton, Ore.-based consultancy, to help push a plan through.

However, Mayflower is in the minority when it comes to disaster recovery planning. Despite numerous high-profile natural disasters in recent years, ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to tsunamis, only 38% of worldwide contact centers have a tested disaster recovery plan in place, according to a recent study from Dimension Data plc, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based IT services firm.

"Another 31% have a plan, but haven't tested it, which to me is really shortsighted. Why put together a plan if you're not going to test it?" said Cara Diemont, editor of the Merchants Global Contact Center Benchmarking Report and an analyst with Dimension Data. "We recommend testing and review every six months."

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According to the survey of 369 contact centers, North American operations rank as some of the least prepared in the world. Only 29% of North American centers have tested disaster recovery plans in place, compared with 45% of Asian contact centers and 49% of contact centers in Africa and the Middle East.

Dimension Data recommends four steps in disaster and recovery planning. First, an organization needs to understand the business impact of a contact center that isn't operating, whether it's for hours, days or weeks. It should then determine the areas in which it is vulnerable.

"What are the points of weakness," Diemont said. "Patch management? Access control? Call routing? Go through a long list and see what you need."

The third step is to determine which option works best for the business, whether it's a standby remote site, an arrangement with offshore outsourcers or a load-sharing arrangement if the business has multiple sites. Finally, the plan needs to be reviewed and tested regularly.

Calm before the storm

Mayflower didn't have a chance to test its plan before one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to ever hit the country made landfall, but otherwise it followed the rest of the steps. Over the summer, McCormack and others visited Cincinnati, where the company's backup operation was to be set up at the corporate headquarters.

When word came to evacuate the New Orleans, Mayflower packed up its staff and headed north. A fairly small business, with only 10 agents working the phones at a time, Mayflower offers funeral and burial insurance in 38 states across the country. It needed to be up and running quickly, paying claims and issuing policies.

"We started turning the wheels quickly as far as getting people up there," McCormack said. "One thing you learn is you can have a terrific disaster plan in place and have it foolproof tested, but the bottom line is it doesn't work unless you have the human resources to back it up."

Mayflower had planned on an interruption of four or five days in the event of a catastrophic event like Katrina. While the other key parts of the business were in operation within those five days, the call center ran into some problems that delayed it an additional four days. Mayflower hadn't had an opportunity to test its hosting agreement and ran into delays with the provider. Not only were there problems getting the system set up in time, the costs also proved to be higher than simply buying a new server and making the switch itself.

"A lesson learned for me was that you can spend significantly for that insurance policy of having a hosting agreement with the provider of your call center systems, or you can do what we did and purchase a server, which is not that expensive," McCormack said. "The main thing is to review your hosting agreement and look at the cost and see if it's not more cost efficient to put a backup system in place."

The disaster of disaster recovery

With all the options currently available for contact centers, the lack of preparedness is particularly egregious, said Donna Fluss, principal at West Orange, N.J.-based DMG Consulting LLC.

"It's the disaster of disaster recovery," Fluss said. "Life has improved massively for contact centers that want to set up remote, off-site contingency operations. We have outsourcers. We have backup facilities. We have hosting. It's a question of priorities -- time as well as cost."

There is also the option of agents answering calls at home and processing information through Web-based software. Mayflower had about 5 of the company's laptops loaded with hosted software and a handful of agents working from home. After Katrina, a couple of agents relocated to Dallas and another had Internet access at home in Louisiana. They were prepared to take calls and Mayflower shipped a laptop to one agent to get her up and running.

Larger companies, like a financial services provider, need to be more vigilant when it comes to preparing for disasters, Fluss warned.

"They can't afford to be down," she said. "Your contact center is your face to the community. What good are 20 people if 1,000 calls come in? In fact, it may be worse because you're setting expectations. The 'it can't happen to me phenomenon' is something we as Americans have to get past."

An organization needs to have a person in charge of disaster planning, if not full-time then as a significant part of his or her job responsibility, Fluss said. Each business unit also needs multiple people responsible in times of emergency. If there's only one, what happens if they can't make it in that day?

McCormack had another lesson to keep in mind: Don't outsource to the same city. Mayflower's plans were further complicated when its New Orleans-based, payment-processing bank shut down as well.

"You just sort of think to yourself this will never happen, and sure enough it really helped to have everything prepared, down to who we would use for a temp agency," McCormack said.

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