Caring for customers in a crisis

27th Jul 2009
As the public panics over the outbreak of swine flu, it's important for front line staff to be well prepared for a crisis so they can react quickly and give customers the right information they need. Nik Nesbitt explains how.
In times of business trouble, it is important to be prepared to keep customers informed and on-side. A great example of doing this right came in NHS Direct’s response to the ongoing swine flu pandemic. When news about the swine flu outbreak appeared in the news, NHS Direct was on hand with knowledgeable spokespeople and its contact centre operators were ready and waiting for the inevitable influx of calls from worried members of the public. Because of planning, they were able to placate the public at two stages – in the press and directly over the phone – vastly increasing public confidence and decreasing worry.
It is easy to see when organisations have not prepared properly because they are usually left floundering in the media and customers are left with none of the information they need -for example, turkey product food manufacturer Bernard Matthews during the avian flu crisis. What’s happening? What is the organisation doing? And what should customers do? Are all questions that were left unanswered.
NHS Direct on the other hand was and is ready for anything swine flu could throw at it. At the centre of this and most well thought-out of crisis plans is an intelligent communications strategy, a concrete action and the ability to provide customers, whoever and wherever they are, with the information they need to feel reassured.

To prepare for a crisis you need an inventive mind. Thinking up the unlimited reasons your organisation could possibly come unstuck and then picking the worst and most likely ones requires a certain level of negative thinking. Not all managers can easily put themselves in the frame of mind to imagine their precious business falling down around their ears, but to properly prepare for and limit the damage of such occurrences, businesses must first face their worst fears.

Facing your worst fears

For any business there will be numerous crises that are likely to occur. Initially, it is up to those involved in the operation, management and communications of that business to get together and work out exactly what these are. After a good brainstorm, most organisations will come out with a list of around 10 most likely crises, 10 further possible but improbable, and 10 unlikely. The next step is concrete preparation for the 10 highly likely hypothetical crises.
The process for planning for customer crises is similar across the board. The NHS Direct example is large-scale, but the things that need to be put in place do not vary much, whether dealing with a toy manufacturer, a food retailer or a national health provider. Examples include product contaminations or finding out that a toy is unsafe for children. In such cases - for example the Mattel ‘lead paint in toys’ crisis  - there is a large amount worry and unrest that must be dealt with.
There are usually two key elements to customer management in a crisis: dealing with the press and dealing with customers directly. The most important part of the process is preparing for inbound customer enquiries by putting in place the people, capacity and technology to provide customers with the information they need when a crisis hits.
There is nothing worse than calling an organisation for urgent information to find yourself in a queue alongside the other 20,000 worried customers who will not receive the information they need. ‘Your call is important to us’ simply will not cut it when people are worried. The organisations that come out of crises unscathed are those that utilise all channels at their disposal to provide all those that matter with the information that will allay fears and placate dissent.
Prepping the contact centre
Few companies maintain an inbound customer service centre of the scale needed during crises. When news of a crisis breaks, the volume of calls into a company can surge by thousands of percent. Companies need to develop a system that will allow them to instantly ramp up the scale of inbound capacity needed to cope. Likewise, trying to do so in a short space of time can lead to confusion and mixed messages being issued from an organisation at a time when a clear voice is needed. Preparing in this way will usually be done by working with a captive or outsourced contact centre. 
As part of a company’s crises plans, working closely with the provider that will handle the inbound calls is a vital step. Outsourced providers must be well-schooled on the organisation, informed of the likely scale of inbound calls and ready to cope with the likely nature of enquiries. The provider will then need to work with the company to develop the question and answer data ready on file to be loaded and used if a crisis does occur.
Other things that should be put in place as part of a rapid deployment plan include inbound phone numbers, training facilities and processes for customer service agents, and a methodology for plan roll-out, detailing why, when and how each stage should be enacted. Once this information is in place, the provider should be able to ramp-up the service, including any technical alterations such as call overflow diversion, within hours. For this reason contact centre redundancy, where operators maintain a certain level of spare capacity, is also important.
A further area organisations must consider in today’s age of 24-hour, multi-channel communications is the fact that customer queries can now occur anywhere and any time. The internet has made it possible for people to find information, ask questions and get answers from other people anywhere in the world. Imagine the caller that, due to massive demand, cannot reach your contact centre, the next step will inevitably be for them to search for information online. If a company has no input into the information its customers are getting, the fallout can become much worse. Organisations planning for crises must work out how they are going to communicate in this domain and who will manage it.
There is much preparation that goes into crisis planning and this simply cannot be done when things are going pear-shaped. By properly preparing and having an effective crisis plan in place, companies will have peace of mind and the ability to allay fears and, ultimately, retain those hard-won customers when the proverbial hits the fan.
Top tips on preparing for a crisis:
  • Examine all likely crises
  • Plan reactive strategy to highest possibility crises
  • Decide on and share the messaging across the organisation
  • Create consistency across all communications channels
  • Decide who is best placed to manage customer contacts
  • Prepare your preferred contact centre supplier
By Nik Nesbitt, founder and CEO of KenCall

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