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Issue Date: August 2007

Call centres - price of failure

August 2007
Ray Stride – managing director, Global Continuity SA

In my recent work experience, the issue of providing continuous service for business' latest client service tool is the current hot issue. The call centre and its ability to provide continuous service is a hot issue. I frequently see requests for disaster recovery facilities and for recovery options. I also see the ugly side of the problem, and that is the creation of call centres and the evolution of call centres into operations that are threatened by elevated levels of risk. To illustrate the issues we need to look at some of the call centre operations present in our everyday lives and look at the consequences of these call centres failing.

The examples shown are taken from real life. Names have not been disclosed to give protection to parties involved.
Case Study 1 - Municipal Service Centre
Failure of such a facility will result in a delay in dispatching repair crews to sites of service failure. Electrical faults, water supply failures and sewage system failures will be the most common issues, and delays will be the main consequence. This will impact on both municipal service providers and consumers. Elevated costs and health risks are present.
Typical recovery needs to be effected within a maximum 24-48 hours.
Case Study 2 - Lending Organisation Debt Collection Call Centre
This is an outbound call centre that uses a predictive dialling system. The predictive dialling system feeds off a file derived from the company's debtors system containing overdue accounts details. The system automatically dials clients and force-feeds the calls to operators with the account details being presented to an operator on a screen. Operators then talk to clients and resolve overdue payments details. The impacts to the lending organisation are that debts that are not rehabilitated quickly soon become problem accounts. This impacts on cash flow and will result in losses and increased cost of collection. Legal costs will rise and write offs will result. Actual financial loss will be substantial.
Typical recovery needs to be effected within a maximum 24-48 hours.
Case Study 3 - Paramedic Dispatch Call Centre
This call centre waits for incoming calls from subscribers who have had industrial, household and traffic accidents. Operators give advice to callers on issues ranging from minor first aid to potential suicides. Operators will also dispatch paramedics and ambulances to the site of the accident. Time to respond is critical. If responses are slow, or non-existent, it is fairly certain that people will die. Apart from the death of a number of trusting clients, losses as a result of litigation are likely to be astronomical. If it can be proven that no prudent back-up plan was in place, criminal negligence can come into the picture.
Recovery time is zero, and failure is not an option. No excuses will be accepted.
Case Study 4 - Outsourced Service Desk
Operators deal with calls for support. These calls come in from sites all over the world and the centre operates around the clock. While the consequences are not extreme, the companies for whom the services are provided, will levy penalties for down time. Typical service level agreements call for single down time incidents of less than 30 minutes and for maximums of no more than 1-2 hours per quarter or per year. Penalties are extreme, and if we as South Africans wish to compete in this market, we will have to meet the standards set by the clients and delivered by our competitors.
Recovery is not an option for this market segment since it takes from 4 hours to 2 days to recover a call centre. High availability options need to be considered.
The final conclusion
When your company implements a call centre, carefully establish the cost of failure and the consequences. Develop a strategy for dealing with the failure of the service(s) in a manner which is appropriate. Include the cost of managing these risks in the call centre budget, this is where it belongs.
Above all, do not operate a call centre and hope that everything will be all right all the time. I can guarantee that it will not.
Just how vulnerable are call centres?
Call Centres are vulnerable in the extreme. Just consider the list of things that can disrupt a call centre:
* Labour unrest.

* Fire.

* Bomb threat.

* Traffic.

* Chemical contamination.

* Hardware failure.

* Telephony failure.

* Electricity (now accounts for around 50% of incidents).

* Data communications failure.

* Software failure.

* Data corruption.
What common pitfalls need to be avoided?
1. Never assume that it is easy or quick to recover a call centre and its functionality. They are complex entities. Be realistic about the time to recover.
2. The size of a call centre is critical. The bigger they are the harder they fall. Some call centres are now exceeding 1000 seats. Even at a fraction of this size they are difficult to manage and difficult to recover.
3. Consolidation of call centres is common. It may make sense to a cost accountant to centralise and consolidate call centres, but you need to add certain costs to the equation:
* Cost of failure. 

* Cost of recovery.

* Cost of back-up contracts.

* Increased likelihood of total failure.

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