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4 Ways to Prepare for Unexpected Customer Support Surges

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Life is complicated and rarely goes as planned. For customer-facing companies, sudden emergencies like natural disasters or data breaches can trigger waves of consumers looking for help and answers. Seasonal issues can creep up on companies too, when customer interactions wildly fluctuate throughout the year.

Regardless of whether a situation catches you by surprise or if it's completely planned, be ready to handle volume spikes in support with a genuine, human experience that helps customers during stressful times.

When disaster strikes

From hurricanes to mass recalls and data breaches, unexpected crises can strike anytime, anywhere. Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, the California wildfires, and Equifax's major data breach are just some examples. In these times, the focus should remain on customer wellbeing. During these times customers will be scared, confused, or maybe even hurt. Companies should offer reassurance and empathy, in addition to conducting transactions.

"Disasters like these are a reminder that our business is highly volatile," said State Farm Spokesperson Angela Thorpe. Last year during numerous natural disasters, its claims department helped provide comfort and stability. "Despite that volatility, our long history of financial strength is what allows us to keep the commitments we have made to our customers, helping to remove some of the uncertainty from their lives during times of significant loss."

See it coming

Unexpected issues will arise, but it doesn't mean you need to be caught on your heels. Here are four steps companies can take to put all the pieces in place, so they can move swiftly when customer support surges happen:

1. Have a surge resource plan

It's surprising how many companies do not have a good handle on emergencies. And they spend millions of dollars just throwing resources at a surge-related problem, whether it be an emergency or a normal business seasonal-type need.

In emergency surges, instead of waiting until you're put on the spotlight, plan in advance and say, "hey we know we're going to have some emergency needs and when that happens, what's our plan and who are we going to reach out to."

Ask yourself if you have vendors that you can lean on who already know what to do. Starting from scratch just creates panic, mistakes, and delays.

Even if it isn't an emergency, you still need to strategize for what's right. What resources do you have and need internally? Are you going to use staffing services, an outsourced vendor, or a combination of all of the above? And how are you going to go about it? Answer as many of these questions as possible before a surge hits.

2. Have a retainer with vendor partners

If your business uses partners, have some type of agreement in place with them ahead of the actual need, so that you can best serve your customers quickly when necessary. There are all kinds of benefits to a good vendor relationship. One is that you know that they understand the type of work, customer expectations, and employee job profile needed for your specific business.

Companies can come out miles ahead if they have a team in advance. Get to know if your partner understands the values you want to deliver to customers in need before you go live. It gives your partners the opportunity to improve their relationship with you, and get ready so that when volume surges, everyone can do their job well.

3. Set up call type tiers and forecast volume to optimize workforce recruiting, training, and management

By predicting volume for different interactions types, you can optimize workforce activities and prepare resources in advance. What should be tier one or two? Who should take what types of calls? What should be automated? What should be offshore or onshore? Give yourself enough time to determine the best path, so you're not forced to hastily decide in the moment..

This type of advanced planning can really make the difference in delivering quality service, high performance, and cost effectiveness.

4. Redesign training to be empathetic and scenario-based for easier and faster learning.

Training is always important when talking about emergency-related surges. And at its root, training is structured and thought out. Too bad emergencies tend to ignore schedules. In many cases you won't have the luxury of a 10-week training program.

Usually the benefit of having the 10-week training is that associates will have time to become well-versed in products and services and understand how to tackle a wide variety of calls. But you don't have this opportunity in extreme surge-related events like sudden natural disasters. The key is to understand how to get associates on the phone, and who can deliver good quality and performance, but without weeks of training time.

This calls for flip-flopping standard training on its head. Typically, what happens in these longer periods of trainings is that people are being trained on everything they need to know about the product and service so that they can answer any questions for you know for whoever calls them.

In a surge-related event, train associates on the what specifically they need to do the job: the experience. We want them to deliver the empathy. If we can train empathy, then a good knowledgebase can take care of the rest.

This is done through scenario-based training. Associates can be trained to understand scenarios in the top 10 call types. This then handles much of calls that are going to come in. So, it's a matter of training for the 90 percent of call volume.

Changing the mindset is critical in an emergency or surge-related event to figure out how to optimize training to get associates proficient quickly. The best way to do that is by making it real for them through scenario-based training. In a lot of surge-related events empathy is a requirement so that you make sure that you're not only training for compassion, but you're also recruiting and hiring correctly.

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