Tips for Mitigating the Impact of Pandemics on Contact Centers

Companies in general, and contact centers and other service organizations in particular, need to be prepared to keep operating, even if their region is stricken by a pandemic. Many companies have disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) plans that address how to operate if one or a few sites and offices go down or there is a massive failure in an electrical grid. And after the last disease scare in 2009 (the H1N1 influenza), some companies extended their DR/BC plans to be prepared for the impact of a pandemic. The good and bad news is that few companies in the developed world have had an opportunity to test and refine their plans for handling a pandemic, which means that if the coronavirus hits their country severely enough to disrupt business, mayhem will likely ensue, at least in the short run.

Anyone who's read this far is probably thinking that if this dangerous infection hits close to home, business continuity will be among the least of people's concerns, and this might very well be true, but you can bet they are going to need a functioning healthcare system. To avoid confusion and service disruptions, healthcare organizations need to be prepared to handle a pandemic. And, once things settle down, other businesses are going to need to get back into operation as quickly as possible, as people will need food, money, electricity, gas, transportation, and a whole lot more.

Planning for a pandemic is quite different than handling the aftermath of hurricanes or other natural disasters. For one thing, it's not about the challenge of driving to work, but instead the reluctance of most people to leave the protection of their safe locations or homes to go to work, even if they believe it's the right thing to do. And it's not fair for companies to expect their contact center and customer service employees to go to the office or a DR location under these circumstances, especially when the rest of the company is told that it's not safe to travel.

Contact centers and other service organizations should draft a DR/BC plan that documents a number of potential health-scare scenarios. It's also necessary for employees to know what is expected of them and how to communicate with your organization if they are not able (or willing) to participate in the plan.

The plan should include the following high-level practices:

  • Assign key responsibilities along with back-up resources. Assume that some of your employees are not going to be able to help and establish a structure where managers and supervisory staff share responsibilities. It's best to pair resources in different geographic regions, and maybe even countries.
  • Create a communications plan. Make sure all resources know how to reach the company and that the company will be able to reach them. Use self-service solutions to automate this task.
  • Coordinate with public health authorities. Assign senior resources to coordinate business activities with the appropriate public health organizations and follow their guidance.
  • Invest in cloud-based solutions that can be operated from multiple locations and possibly even different countries. (This might be an issue for companies in countries where laws require interactions to remain in country.) Even if your organization is not using cloud-based infrastructure and systems, invest in back-up infrastructure. All systems, including the automatic call distributor, dialer, self-service systems, recording solutions, etc., should be pre-programmed, ready to go, and capable of being activated remotely.
  • Invest in two carriers, if possible. This is a standard best practice for any DR/BC plan, as it doubles the chances that your customers (or patients) will be able to reach you.
  • Do not require your agents or customer service representatives to come into the office. If there is a pandemic, encourage employees to work from home to keep them as safe as possible and reduce the risk of disease transmission. This means that employees will need to be able to work from home without coming to the office to pick up their computers or headsets. (This is another compelling reason to use cloud-based systems.)
  • Train your staff. Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them and run practice drills, if this can be done without disrupting operations.
  • Test the plan. Invest in a partial test of the plan and infrastructure every quarter to make sure it works. (If your company uses outsourcers, include them in the pandemic DR/DC planning and testing.) Train enough resources to use the application, as it will take too long to onboard them during a disaster or pandemic.

Preparing for a pandemic or other potential disaster is the best way to ensure your organization will be open and ready to help your customers and patients, even during challenging times. While it's necessary to be available to assist customers and patients during a crisis, it's as important to address the needs of your employees so they remain healthy. We hope never to confront these challenges, but being prepared is the best way to mitigate the risk and allay your employees' worst fears.

Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is an expert on contact centers, analytics, and back-office technology. She has 30 years of experience helping organizations build contact centers and back-office operating environments and assisting vendors to deliver competitive solutions. She can be reached at