Weathering the Storm: Lessons Learned From Hurricane Harvey

Providing Answering Service Backup Support From a Thousand Miles Away

When hurricane Harvey reached landfall in the United States this August, it became the first hurricane to do so in over a decade. After a 12-year lull, people in the United States of America experienced firsthand the devastating power of this hurricane’s 130 miles-per-hour winds and torrents of rain. Labeled as a 1000-year-storm—that is, the magnitude of which only occurs once every millennium—hurricane Harvey unleashed its havoc over Eastern Texas. Buildings were destroyed, people displaced, and companies scrambled to find ways so they could stay in business. One key challenge was maintaining channels of communication between businesses and their customers. Telephone answering services normally play a key role in facilitating always-available, around-the-clock services to facilitate communications. But what happens when the telephone answering service is also affected? Case Study: Answering services in Houston, as well as other places, scrambled to provide continuous operations to their clients at this critical juncture. One Houston-based answering service experienced a direct assault. Fortunately their facility withstood the hurricane’s beating and remained intact. Unfortunately many of the service’s staff were affected and unable to come in to work. For some the storm had left them homeless. Survival suddenly became their number one priority. Others were relatively unaffected, but they were unable to reach the office due to flooding and impassable roads. This left the Houston staff short by three or four operators on first and second shift, with the remaining employees, who could make it in, unable to handle the number of calls that arrived. This included their normal call traffic as well as an enhanced level of emergency communication. Almost 1,000 miles away from Houston, in Seymour, Tennessee, Answering Service One, one of the nation’s premier answering services, went to a ready state. Management alerted staff to go on standby and be ready to supplement the work of other answering services that were negatively impacted by hurricane Harvey. Within hours the competent, trained communication professionals at Answering Service One were on the phone, taking calls for this Houston-based answering service and its displaced staff who they had never met. Using a VPN (virtual private network) connection, the Tennessee-based staff tapped into the Houston answering service’s computerized answering service platform. But before taking calls, the telephone operators at Answering Service One had to familiarize themselves with the specific configuration and protocol that the staff in Houston followed. Fortunately both services used the Infinity system developed by Amtelco, a provider of call center and answering service systems and software. Because these two answering services use a common platform, and as a result of Answering Service One’s extensive operator training, the remote staff could get up to speed quickly and begin taking calls. During this time Answering Service One provided the staff needed to round out the schedule in Houston and answer their calls. For two weeks Answering Service One provided an additional three to four operators to take calls that the staff in Houston couldn’t get to. For a time they also assumed responsibilities for third shift. Another Example: At the same time, another answering service in Houston feared they would also have a shortage of staff and an influx of calls they couldn’t handle. They, too, contacted Answering Service One to make arrangements for them to be available as a backup if needed. Fortunately this answering service could deal with this emergency on their own, but they took solace in knowing that help was only a phone call away. From a business standpoint, both these Houston-based answering services realized a successful outcome. However, not all answering services fared as well. Without having remote backup capabilities provided by another answering service, many floundered. More Than Hurricanes: Although hurricane Harvey was a once-in-a-millennium event, other hurricanes have followed. These devastated other parts of the country and had similar impacts on businesses and the answering services that serve them. However, we have more to worry about than hurricanes, which typically affect only coastal areas. Other parts of the country may deal with earthquakes, flooding, tornadoes, snow storms, freezing rain, or subzero temperatures. All of these can hamper effective answering service operations and trigger a crisis. In addition to these natural disasters, we have man-made problems to worry about as well. These include a terrorist attack, civil unrest, fire, explosion, and pandemic, all of which could have a detrimental effect on answering service operations. Make a Disaster Recovery Plan: These types of disaster recovery configurations should be established in advance. Yet neither of these Houston-based answering services had made prior arrangements with Answering Service One. But because of Answering Service One’s technical expertise, can-do staff, and flexible management, they could respond quickly and provide help when needed. Most answering services, through no fault of their own, don’t have the ability to react as fast and provide remote backup agents at a moment’s notice. Basic Scenarios: Every answering service should have a disaster recovery plan. However, when developing this plan, it’s impossible to anticipate every potential disaster. Instead, provide instructions to address generic scenarios, which can then be applied to specific situations as needed. An answering service with premise-based equipment has two primary developments they may face when dealing with an emergency. The first is encountering problems external to the answering service facility. This means the answering service platform is intact, running, and connected to the internet. This was the situation with the first answering service in Houston. Their system was operational, but not all staff could make it into the office to work. Under these conditions, a properly trained and prepared answering service in another location can access the system and take calls. The other circumstance, however, is more serious. In this instance the answering service facility, it’s equipment, or internet connection is compromised and therefore cannot be accessed. In this case, for an answering service to help, they need to be able to connect to an external database at an off-site location. Providing help to an answering service in these conditions is much more difficult and requires extensive planning. This is not a scenario that can be addressed quickly during a disaster. Advance preparation is key. With plans for these two scenarios in place, answering services can adapt them to whatever catastrophe may confront them. Ideally, any upper management or mid-level staff should be able to successfully follow this disaster recovery plan and obtain the backup support services they need in an emergency. This discussion focuses on answering services with premise-based systems. Most answering services have this type of configuration. However, answering services that use a hosted or cloud-based solution have much more flexibility to adapt and adjust when faced with a disaster. Yet this doesn’t mean they don’t have to form a disaster recovery plan. It just means their plan is simpler to develop and implement. Compensation Recommendation: A convention that Answering Service One follows when they provide disaster backup services is to pay their operators the going rate of the staff at the service they’re assisting. This allows the answering service being helped to keep their payroll close to its typical level. After all, they have enough other things to worry about without the need to concern themselves about payroll cost escalating beyond what they can cover. Though this might mean the staff at Answering Service One will receive a different rate of pay from what they would normally earn, they’re happy to help during an emergency. In fact, the Answering Service One staff saw their assistance during hurricane Harvey as a community service situation and were excited to help others in the industry. This provided them with perhaps the only tangible way that they, living in Tennessee, could provide direct support to people affected by the hurricane in Houston. Other Considerations: A key component of a disaster recovery plan includes having preestablished arrangements with answering services in different geographic areas to provide backup service if needed. Make agreements with multiple answering services. This offers maximum flexibility and provides options when contacting a backup provider for assistance. After all, if you only have one backup provider and they encounter an emergency at the same time, you have no backup. In addition to developing a disaster recovery plan, there are two other key recommendations. One is to have written agreements in place with backup providers. The other is to schedule periodic testing of the technical logistics to ensure the remote connection will work as expected when it is needed. Conclusion: Everyone hopes to never encounter a business-threatening disaster. Yet having a disaster recovery plan in place for your answering service provides you with assurance that you will be able to weather the storm. Janet Livingston is the president of Call Center Sales Pro, a premier sales and marketing service provider for the call center industry, which helps clients improve the effectiveness of their communications and grow their business. Contact Janet at or 800-901-7706. Peter Lyle DeHaan is a freelance writer from Southwest Michigan.