Global Disruptions to Customer Service: How Top Brands Are Adapting Contingency Plans Amidst Coronavirus Concerns

Every company has a business contingency plan (BCP) – a blueprint for ensuring continuity of service when the unexpected occurs. But as we discovered during this week’s Customer Response Summit (CRS) in Hollywood, Florida, the global and potentially long-term effects of the novel coronavirus on travel, commuters, and work environment present unique challenges that are sure to alter brands’ BCPs — and even their business strategies — moving forward.

The fact is, brands are learning to expect a different kind of unexpected. “We’ve all prepared for a snowstorm – a day or two,” said one executive. “What’s the long-term strategy? Quality can’t stop because we’re working from home. How do we as a company guarantee that we remain consistent in our operations and the service we deliver? What are we doing for the customer, for the employee, and the business?”

Taking a Realistic Stance on Travel

Companies are struggling to “right size” their response to the potential health risks associated with travel. “There’s a lot of misinformation going on,” a CRS attendee pointed out. “We have to have a proportional response, not an over- or under-response.”

“Everyone is sitting on edge waiting to see how it’s going to expand,” another said. “Everyone is doing everything they can do without going overboard. Right now, we’re telling our employees they don’t have to travel if they don’t feel comfortable with it.”

“Safety first and foremost – partners and clients,” said an executive whose company recently grounded all international travel. “You could end up sick yourself, or you could end up quarantined just because you got on a flight with someone who is sick.”


Focus on Hygiene Reinvigorates Existing Policies

Many CRS attendees with operations in Asia said they have doubled down on workplace hygiene policies already in place. “We have strict regulations around compliance but over time we’d gotten a bit lax,” admitted one executive with 80,000 agents in the Philippines. “In addition to providing more tissue packs and antibacterial products we are also doing daily temperature checks – every person gets one. If they are running a temp they are sent to our full-service medical staff for assessment and, if necessary, they can self-quarantine.”

Said another, “We’re doing the basics – we’ve got thousands of masks ordered, and they’re in the centers. Hand sanitizers have always been there but we’re doubling up or tripling up on quantities. We’re also trying to find ways to make hand washing fun and less of a chore.”

Attendees agreed that transparency in internal communications is key. “We’re keeping consistent messaging in terms of ‘sanitation’ of the workspace. If someone thinks they need to be quarantined they can self-declare without fear that their job is in danger. It’s all about comfort and clarity around who’s coming into the center to work, when it’s safe to do so, and why we have these policies in place.”


Benefits and Limitations to “Work from Home”

In the most severely affected areas, governments are telling workers to stay home. But even in industries where working from home (WFH) is a viable option in theory, a lack of supporting infrastructure poses significant challenges as quarantines stretch from weeks to months.

“In China first and now Japan, when people started working from home volumes went through the roof because they couldn’t use their laptops due to security and privacy issues, and we couldn’t send enough desktops to their homes,” said an outsourcing manager at a global consumer electronics company. “How do you solve for 30% of capacity at 200% of volume? You can’t,” he said, adding that, “We’re using translation services to reroute volume from China. We’re also relying on gig workers to bridge the gap.”

“WFH may make sense if it’s just a few people, but it just doesn’t work for 600 employees,” the executive pointed out. “And you can’t move equipment around because of travel bans.”

“We don’t have an at home model, and it’s just not something you can pull the trigger on unless you already have something in place,” another agreed.

Some forward-thinking companies have been stress-testing WFH as part of their BCPs, however. “Business contingency planning is hard. There’s no way to just think your way through it – you have to test it,” said an executive from a major car manufacturer. “One challenge we encountered around WFH was server capacity, so we addressed that. You have to try these things out before something happens. You can’t just do it in theory.”

“We’ve equipped our agents so they can work from home both for flexibility and convenience but also in case of emergencies,” said an attendee with a call center in earthquake-prone Mexico City. “We’re switching this month to make my entire department WFH.”

An executive from a smaller company said, “All of our workers have desktops and “go bags” to be equipped at home. We’re a small team so we can’t afford to lose people.”

“WFH doesn’t always work for every country and every culture,” one attendee noted. “You have to get buy-in for the model if you want to explore this as a long-term solution.”


How BPOs Are Handling the Crisis – and Clients’ Concerns

For business process outsourcers (BPOs) — particularly those operating in Asia — the situation has made clients uneasy. A few attendees said their BPOs had contacted them proactively to explain the precautions they are taking in their contact centers, but many said they are still waiting to hear from their business partners. “Getting that proactive communication really made me feel more comfortable,” said one attendee.

“As an outsourcer we’re taking another look at our response,” said one BPO. “It’s a partnership between us and our clients and it’s going to lead to some interesting discussions on how best to move forward.”

A representative from a gig sourcing provider said his company is offering to allow clients’ in-house agents to use its platform in a pinch. “This is a contingency plan – the platform isn’t really set up for in-house teams,” he cautioned. “But it does work on personal devices.”


A Potential Shift to New Business Models

How can brands leverage their current experience to strategically prepare for a future that may include more long-term global disruptions down the road? What’s the role of technology in mitigating their impact?

“This coronavirus situation definitely makes us think about offering more self-serve options and speed up development on those services. Machine learning and predictive service models could help deflect volume as well,” said an attendee. “We’re just at the cusp of a lot of these service offerings but, given the current outlook, it seems these technologies might limit our exposure in future.”


The Bottom Line

As the business impacts of coronavirus continue to reverberate across the globe, brands are being forced to re-evaluate contingency plans designed primarily for short-term and potentially long-term operational disruptions. Companies that take this opportunity to leverage new technologies and strategies that can help insulate them from major global events like coronavirus will be well-positioned to maintain continuity of service if — or when — the next long-term crisis occurs.


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