Europe may still be basking in summer sunshine, but Content Guru is urging its customers to be ready for a harsh winter.
Winter weather can mete out a range of severe practical challenges. Snow, ice, violent storms and flooding impact almost every organisation and individual. Content Guru’s clients are already making ready for these threats – with communications services to customers being high on the list of priorities.
Here we outline some of these challenges — and solutions — in overviews of three sectors: Utilities, Travel and Health.
A harsh winter
The winter of 2010/2011 was one of the harshest Europe had faced in decades. Germany's transport network – renowned for its resilience – was left crippled under heavy snow, with hundreds of cancelled flights and a rash of traffic accidents in treacherous conditions. The Eurostar service was reduced to a trickle. In some areas of the UK, pipes froze, thawed and burst, leaving tens of thousands without running water. Across Europe, the weight of snow snapped power lines and left thousands without electricity.
Under intense media scrutiny and amid widespread public anger, ministers and CEOs readily admitted that exacerbating many of these crises was a lack of effective, coherent communication with the public.
For most customers, communication with utilities companies is limited to paying the bill. But when an unscheduled outage cuts off water, electricity or gas, how do customer helplines bend to meet the enormous pressure?
These events can amplify call volumes within a matter of minutes. Some contact centre infrastructures are robust enough to tackle the steady uplift that follows a prolonged period of cold weather, but still risk being overwhelmed when a major incident cuts services to thousands of households at the same time. Providers without the means to cope with these sudden surges inevitably risk long-term damage to their reputation.
In December 2010, a cold snap burst pipes and meant that water supply was disrupted to 40,000 Northern Ireland Water customers. Its contact centres were unable to cope with the demand in enquiries and it is estimated that over 1 million call attempts to its helplines were made in under a week. That is the equivalent of more than 1 in every 2 members of the population making a call.
The handling of the event led to the resignation of its CEO Laurence MacKenzie, who wrote in his resignation letter: “I readily accept and recognise that there were aspects of the way in which we handled the situation that could have been better. In particular our ability to communicate with our customers and let them know the reasons for and the times at which they were going to be taken off supply. This failing added to the considerable inconvenience experienced by our customers.”
To cope with such scenarios, many utilities companies are absorbing call surges by combining the burst capability of the cloud with IVR. UK Power Networks (formerly EDF Energy) uses Content Guru’s storm® platform for just this purpose. In a power cut, customers calling from an affected area are played information explaining the nature of the problem and how it is being rectified. SMS alerts are sent to affected customers as soon as an outage occurs. This drastically reduces the volume of incoming calls, which again frees advisors to focus on the more urgent, high-priority enquiries.
Travel services face the same extreme fluctuations in demand. After the heavy snowfall last year, travel companies saw inbound call volumes rocket to five times the normal level. Leveraging the cloud capacity of storm, they maintained an unbroken information service and also ran a dedicated snow line, which took tens of thousands of calls in the first 24 hours.
Seasonal diseases such as swine flu pose serious problems, but they are not the only winter threats faced by healthcare authorities. For hospitals and clinics, general sickness and travel difficulties experienced by staff and patients can upset finely-balanced schedules, with complex knock-on effects.
Cloud systems are now warning patients of cancelled appointments by their preferred channel – email, SMS or recorded phone message. Using storm, administrators can easily contact patients to confirm they can still attend, reducing unpredictable ‘no shows’ and better focusing resources. If specific health threats such as H1N1 do dictate swift changes in policy as regards admissions and hygiene, line managers can update patients immediately.
Requirements extend beyond wards and waiting rooms. Absenteeism can prove troublesome for businesses in any sector, and hosted ‘sickness management’ is growing in popularity. Content Guru’s cloud solutions can monitor day-to-day absence and support absent employees with IVR and SMS, providing helpful health advice. This proactive strategy can discourage unwarranted absenteeism and assist those who are genuinely unwell – promoting individual well-being and boosting the health of the organisation as a whole.
Beyond the winter
The advantages of preparing for the winter months are clear to see. These types of services are also delivering benefits that transform the way organisations communicate all year round, as Irfan Habib, Content Guru Business Development Manager, explains:
“It's clear that for any organisation working with a large body of stakeholders – whether customers, passengers or patients – incisive communication in a crisis is fundamental. It determines whether chaos reigns or order returns.
“But we shouldn’t forget that the priorities faced in those extreme scenarios are important considerations at any time of year. Many organisations need to nurture stakeholder relationships on a daily basis, and cloud services let them do that across multiple channels with a high level of flexibility.
“Surges in call volumes can actually be a sign of success, as people respond to marketing campaigns or the launch of a new service. Hosted solutions can ensure organisations take full advantage of these opportunities and develop their influence without hindrance from inadequate infrastructure.”