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Grow Your Business Security

How Call Centers Keep You Connected During (and After) a Natural Disaster

image for SpeedKingz/Shutterstock
SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Natural disasters are unpredictable. Whether it's a storm, earthquake or other disaster, the impact on the surrounding area and the telecommunications infrastructure can have serious consequences for a small business. While there's only so much you can do to prepare for and avoid the effects of a natural disaster, call center services can ensure your phone lines stay operational and your customers can reach your business.

In the best of times, call centers are professional and friendly points of contact for your customers. They handle phone calls so you don't have to, whether that entails fielding common questions, taking orders or even conducting telemarketing campaigns. During a major disaster, call centers become an emergency lifeline, keeping your business in contact with its customers even while you're scrambling to protect both your company and yourself as the natural disaster rages on.

How do call center services help your business operate during a natural disaster, and how do they stay operational under the same conditions? Better yet, how can they help you get back on your feet when the storm settles? Here's a look at how call center services can help you during and after a natural disaster.

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Natural disasters occur in many different forms in all geographies. Hurricane, tornado, earthquake or fire – no small business is immune to the fury of Mother Nature when it strikes. Unfortunately, many small businesses don't think about the possibility of natural disasters or establish a business continuity plan, even though 40% of small businesses never recover once a natural disaster strikes.

From Hurricane Florence and Texas flooding in 2018 to California's fires and earthquakes this year, natural disasters are prominent occurrences that can severely disrupt business. Unfortunately, scientists believe the rate and severity of natural disasters are increasing due to climate change. On tap for the future are likely more droughts, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and fires throughout the U.S.

"We see disasters across all geographic areas, and the vulnerability [to small businesses] is always on keeping support services up, telephone services especially," said Kathy Gray, business development director for Xact Telesolutions. "Every area has vulnerabilities, but if you're wise, you're preparing for it."

Preparedness for a natural disaster is critical, and that includes ensuring your call center or answering service stands ready to field any incoming calls. Call center services often handle after-hours and weekend calls for small businesses, as well as any overflow when call volumes spike during business hours. However, even if your small business doesn't use a call center, you can contract with one to manage your phone lines if a natural disaster occurs.

"We have a client in Fayetteville, North Carolina, whom we support, but we don't usually handle their main line," Gray said. "They routed their main line to us to direct calls to other call centers in the country in preparation for [Hurricane Florence]."

While a lot more goes into disaster planning than simply making sure the phones keep ringing, it's an important aspect all the same. Customers outside the affected area (or, depending on the nature of your business, within the affected area) will continue trying to reach your business while you have your hands full protecting your assets and yourself. While business might be the last thing on your mind as nature wreaks havoc all around you, many customers won't consider that when they are unable to reach you. Having a call center service at the ready to keep your phones running and a friendly receptionist on the other side is key to retaining their business and keeping them satisfied.

It's not just during a natural disaster that a call center service comes in handy. Following any kind of natural disaster, small businesses will have to contend with a lengthy and arduous recovery process, just like the residents of the affected area. Call centers are useful partners when you're busy picking up the pieces and returning to normalcy.

"Should [a small business] be away longer than they imagine, they need to have a plan in place with a call center to be supported by that partner while they're away," Gray said.

You can retain a call center to act as short-term customer service staff if you or your employees are unable to work, or if you're preoccupied with the recovery efforts underway in your area. For particularly large disasters where an area is thrown into disarray for a long time, small businesses can rest assured that their call center partners are continuously delivering customer service to anyone who calls in.

"After Hurricane Katrina, for example, people were out of work for months at a time," said John Coulter, director of business development for Five Star Call Centers. "We staffed up so that we could handle our clients' customer service while their employees got back on their feet and returned to work."

There's a lot to do in the wake of a natural disaster, such as filing insurance claims, cleaning up physical locations and getting any disrupted systems back online. Many small businesses also pitch in to community recovery efforts, adding to the workload of bouncing back after a devastating natural disaster. While all these recovery efforts are going on, customers will still need to get in touch with your business, making a fully operational call center a must. Call center services can provide this necessity for your business while you're preoccupied with any and all recovery efforts.

Outsourcing operations to call centers when a disaster occurs is one thing, but how can call centers avoid disruption to their own service if they find themselves in the heart of a disaster? Every company is different, but the best call centers have redundancies in place to ensure they can reroute calls and manage the volume at other locations throughout the country.

"The way a call center should be placing that volume is redundant across multiple locations so they never find themselves in a position where they cannot answer for a client," Gray said. "We have placed agents in 20 states. We have data centers bunkered down in three places in the states, so if one center is impaired, the call routing just switches out."

At the core of it, call centers simply have a larger and more redundant infrastructure that ensures there is always an available location to handle your small business's calls, even if one location finds itself in the midst of a natural disaster or other service disruption.

"Small businesses often don't have the technology and the redundancy that we have in place today," Coulter said. "It's not cost-effective for them to have multiple phone switches, generators on site and multiple locations. Call centers, in general, have multiple phone providers, multiple internet providers and multiple locations. If there's a flood in South Carolina and it hurts a small business, I've got four locations to transfer calls to and keep supporting customers." [Interested in call centers and answering services for business? Check out our best picks.]

Outsourcing the management of your phone lines to a call center or answering service can help you focus on emergency management and an after-the-fact disaster recovery plan. Whether it's a natural or man-made disaster, such as electrical grid failures, answering services give your customers a person to reach who represents your brand through it all.

In disaster planning, emergency preparedness is key. It's best to have a plan and not need it than need one and not have it. Having a preliminary discussion and establishing a relationship with a call center service is one step in forming a comprehensive disaster plan to keeps things running even if you can't physically get to your business. While maintaining the phone lines is only one part of a holistic business continuity plan, it's an important piece of the puzzle.

"For anybody, it's about having trusted partners," Coulter said. "Preparation is always key. Many people don't think about business continuity until disaster strikes, and then it's too late. Make sure you have internal policies and procedures documented to get another team up and running."

"My advice is to plan ahead – don't wait for the event to come your way," Gray said. "Protect your business, make a plan with a call center partner, and engage with someone who has the infrastructure where calls aren't leaning into one area of the country."

Whether you operate in a disaster-prone area or a freak occurrence catches you off guard, call center services give you one less thing to worry about. When you're trying to mitigate the fallout of a massive storm, earthquake, fire or any other kind of disaster, you can at least be assured that customers calling your business will be greeted by a professional call center agent representing your brand in a friendly and helpful manner.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam C. Uzialko, a New Jersey native, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 with a degree in political science and journalism and media studies. He reviews healthcare information technology, call centers, document management software and employee monitoring software. In addition to his full-time position at Business News Daily and Business.com, Adam freelances for several outlets. An indispensable ally of the feline race, Adam is owned by four lovely cats.