Business Continuity: Maintaining Customer Service During a Disaster

By Gayle Magee
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Good customer service means making it as easy as possible for customers to do business with you, despite any challenges you may be facing. One of the biggest operational challenges Digium faced was following the 2011 tornado outbreak across the Southeastern US. Five years ago today, on April 27, 2011, 60 tornadoes touched ground across Alabama alone – home to Digium headquarters. The aftermath included hundreds of lives lost, thousands injured, and 43 Alabama counties were declared as Federal Disaster Areas. Over 120,000 businesses across the state were impacted by the storms – Digium being one of them. Like many businesses that have had to put their business continuity plans in action following a disaster, our normal day-to-day goals were quickly refocused on taking care of our employees and our customers. Since we service customers across the globe, the majority of our customers were not directly impacted by the tornadoes in Alabama, and we wanted to make sure they didn’t experience an indirect hit either, because our business was facing challenges.

While our company’s problems were minor compared to what some in the state were facing, they were not insignificant. Keeping operations and customer service running smoothly during this time required a tremendous amount of teamwork and customer support. Since the communication of thousands of businesses depends on Digium, remaining operational and available for customers was vital.

Several challenges arose during the week following the storms, but we pulled together and handled it. First, since the majority of North Alabama was out of power for several days, we had to use our backup generators. Since they require diesel to run, several of us hit the road in search of fuel, which was not an easy task since everyone else in the state was in search of the same liquid gold. We found fuel in another state, rented fuel cells and a transport vehicle, which removed the concern of running out of fuel for the generators.  This allowed us to keep our Huntsville tech support lines up-and-running for the full seven days we were without power. Another kink in the road was that both FedEx and UPS would not come to our building location to pick up deliveries. Our VP of Manufacturing, Quality & Global Logistics, Steve Burcham, arranged for the products to be delivered to a FedEx facility in Birmingham, an hour and a half south to ensure customers’ and resellers’ anticipated deliveries stayed on schedule.

Another potential hindrance was having limited staff on-site. Thankfully, because of Digium’s technology and advanced planning, employees all over the world assisted the scaled-back staff at headquarters by answering calls and remotely accessing our systems, allowing us to continue operations as if nothing had happened. I was answering sales calls in Milwaukee, Wisconsin via Switchvox Mobile, and customers never knew the difference. Danny Windham, our CEO, sent out emails to our resellers and partners reassuring them that they had nothing to worry about, and that Digium was fully operational – distributed, but fully operational.

Following the devastation, communities, towns, and businesses across the South took the opportunity to improve emergency procedures for the future. Digium’s mission following that event was clear: propose solutions not only to promote business recovery, but also to improve preparation for future disasters by putting emergency protocols into place – for our company and our customers. Protocols for disaster recovery (DR) extend beyond emergency contacts and should include a plan for your first line of defense: customer service. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Include customer service in your DR plan: Pinpoint your strongest customer service reps – those who are calm and efficient under pressure – and have them assume primary responsibility of communicating to customers during an emergency. Create a step-by step plan which includes what information to communicate (need-to-know only vs. full story) and how to communicate it (email alert, automated phone calls, or social media). Consider all possible scenarios and the proper protocol for each, such as what to do if your phones are down, or how to respond to a nasty tweet.
  • Reach out to customers: Access to information is immediate through the Internet, so don’t wait for customers to contact you with questions or complaints – get to them first. Customers appreciate companies being proactive in emergencies, especially when their business depends on it; so begin communication as soon as possible. Let customers know how they can reach you, and include more than one option for doing so, if at all possible. Apologize when you drop the ball, fix the issue, and thank your customers for being patient with you. Emotions can run high during emergencies, so patience and diligence is necessary.
  • Update & train: Your DR plan needs to be updated as frequently as company policies change, technology is upgraded, and as employees transition in and out of existing roles. The customer service team needs to be aware of any changes so that they are prepared at all times to provide accurate information to customers during an emergency. Schedule regular training and drills to keep the process running smoothly and ensure the process stays fresh on your employees’ minds.

Due to our technologies and dedication to customer service, Digium was able to answer calls, accept new orders, issue licenses, ship products, and answer tech support questions. If the ball was dropped, as it sometimes does in emergencies, we apologized to our customers and corrected the problem. I’m extremely proud of the way our team pulled together, without complaint, and did what it took to maintain a high level of customer service for our customers.

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About the Author

Gayle Magee

Gayle Magee is the Director of Customer Success and Worldwide Distribution Sales at Digium, Inc. She joined the firm in 2007 from ADTRAN, Inc. as the Director of Distribution. Prior to ADTRAN, Gayle was the Director of Sales for Inter-tel and Executone Information Systems, Inc. Earlier in her career, Gayle held various VP and Director positions at large systems integrators and then was a partner in a Unix Based communications start-up, responsible for design, marketing and sales. Gayle has her B.A. in Computer Science and Management from Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She and her husband Gary live in Pinehurst, NC and they travel extensively.

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