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The public sector needs more than conventional contingency plans

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Being faced with a massive and sudden workload is daunting but service organisations in the public and private sectors are expected to take it in their stride – often at very short notice and without prior knowledge.

Consider the impact that an unexpected avalanche of enquiries resulting from a health scare or a sudden product recall might have on both the manufacturer as well as safety and trading standards agencies. Similarly, how can an organisation such as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs prepare itself for a massive surge in enquiries as a result of a foot and mouth or avian flu outbreak? Even when significant peaks of activity are known in advance, how can an organisation cope with huge workload spikes that amount to a tiny fraction of the working year?

Customer perceptions are determined by the way an organisation copes with routine day-to-day services and they will be a defining experience. It’s hard for any organisation to recover from persistent failure to fulfil customer expectations at such times. Constantly engaged telephone lines, stressed call handlers and incomplete call resolutions all amount to failure and, as a consequence, very unhappy customers. As we all know, it’s not easy to put the smile back on the face of a disgruntled customer.

More and more service organisations and businesses recognise that such challenges cannot realistically be absorbed as part of day-to-day operations. It’s practically impossible for most organisations to have a true understanding of real demand if the resources are not able to establish queue levels throughout a working day or to measure the quality of call resolution. Careful preparation and highly tuned procedures are essential if such sudden and huge rises in workload are to be managed effectively in the best interests of both staff and customers.

 More than conventional contingency planning

It needs genuine foresight, readily available resources on tap, full response capability and a thorough understanding of both existing and required infrastructure as well as comprehensive staff training. For example, without the right telephony solution, ramping up manpower resources would be a laudable but very costly and ultimately, futile exercise.

In the same way that it is not viable for any organisation to base staffing requirements on an occasional worst case scenario, it would be irresponsible and unrealistic to expect routine staffing levels to be able to cope with a huge rise in demand. To do so would be a huge gamble that would also have a considerable negative impact on other areas of the business including the perception of the customers.

For these reasons, companies and organisations faced with such challenges are looking beyond their own internal resource and turning to specialist external expertise and capabilities that will provide a tailored, seamless and highly effective response when called on at short notice. This greatly improves the agility and responsiveness of a business and significantly ensures operational resilience in any eventuality.

Calling on such support is much more than an effective insurance policy. It will ensure that the customer interface of an organisation is always resourced at an appropriate level which will help to boost customer satisfaction levels. If for example, the demand forecast during a peak period proves to be inaccurate, it’s essential that resources can be reinforced or pulled back with minimal notice. Such a high level of flexibility also serves to protect the morale of staff and will provide peace of mind for senior management.

The right outsourcing partner for managing peaks in demand will spend time developing a thorough understanding of the client organisation as well as the known or potential scenarios that could spark a need to ramp up activities. This will include a detailed assessment of system requirements for scaling up existing infrastructure and the actions needed for an external contact centre to be dovetailed effectively with an organisation’s existing resource.

Such preparatory work will also feature the introduction of a detailed training programme for all ‘remote’ personnel which will include refresher courses and regular drills to ensure up-to-date knowledge and awareness of procedures and requirements at all times. Where highly specialist skills are required – such as veterinary expertise for Defra – a comprehensive register of experts should be developed to provide the necessary emergency cover, with each individual receiving supplementary training at the partner’s dedicated call centre(s).

The introduction of a partner capable of providing a virtual ‘pop up’ contact centre at the click of a finger amounts to ‘best practice’ for any organisation. It’s also very cost effective as there are no standby costs. Crisis workloads can now be taken in one’s stride and a huge area of potential risk is now under effective control. More often than not, such an approach will be seen as a real asset when it comes to protecting and developing customer satisfaction as, what would previously be considered as a crisis, can now be seen as a genuine opportunity to excel.

Garry Robinson, customer services director, Serco

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