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Brick House Answering Services Can Handle the Huff and the Puff

Is your answering service bulletproof? Bombproof? Indestructible? Invincible? Is your  call center built to stay up and running no matter what? They need to be, because your business depends on it.

Image of a brick wall on a call center

Put it this way, you are entrusting your calls with one of the three little pigs. The big bad wolf could be anything from technical issues and operational failures to minor weather inconveniences or natural disasters. When the wolf makes his rounds, (and he always does), do you want your answering service to be living in the house of straw? How about the house of sticks? Absolutely not. The only acceptable option is to do business with an answering service built inside the house of bricks.

Not only does an answering service need to support your business when something happens where you live and work, but it also has to be able to handle anything that might occur wherever they base their operations. So, when considering which telephone answering service to align your business with, consider what steps they have taken to ensure they are always prepared to handle your calls.

Read through this article for an in-depth look at everything a trustworthy answering service needs to take into consideration when building for success (yours and theirs).

A basic breakdown of how working with an answering service should go:

  • A business hires an answering service.
  • A business forwards its calls to that service to be properly handled and processed.
  • The answering service is available to respond with a friendly, professional and courteous operator on a 24/7 basis.

Easy.

And it should be. Your answering service ought to be available to you whenever you need them, around the clock, especially when there are unforeseen events that require their use. Answering services provide a very key role in a business’s customer support continuity planning. For example, each year, as a result of severe storms, hundreds and even thousands of businesses are brought to their knees because their facilities are inaccessible or they have no power for days. Whenever deadly storms batter the East Coast, companies that use geographically remote answering services are able to stay afloat afloat. Others are not so lucky. You can apply the same situation to a tornado in the Midwest or a wildfire on the West Coast.  Continuity planning is a real topic for today’s business owners across the country. The use of answering services should play a role in planning.

But what about the answering service you just selected to help you? Is your answering service ready to withstand failures? What if an emergency befalls your service provider? Can they stay online and provide the mission-critical services that you need them to? Your answering service needs to have a bullet-proof contingency plan in place. It is your job to make sure they are truly capable to respond in a time of need.  There are a number of operational items that need to be addressed to ensure that your service provider has redundancy built in at multiple levels. Remember, once you get past the pricing negotiations, performance metrics and quality monitoring questions and choose the service that best fits your needs, you will be entrusting your business to your service provider. That is a big deal. You need to be 100% certain that they will remain standing when the wind starts blowing or the grid goes down.

Location. Location. Location.

If your chosen BPO (Business Process Outsourcer) has multiple call center locations, this can be very useful in redirecting call traffic from a failing location to an auxiliary site. But that isn’t always necessary. When searching for the right call center to support your business continuity needs, first take a look a geographic location. Would you choose a service provider located on the coast of Florida? Or would something a bit further away from a hurricane-prone region be a better fit? How about in earthquake prone areas or Tornado Alley? Probably not the best idea. You need to make smart decisions about where your call center partner is located. Wise answering service providers have specifically chosen the location of their call center facilities not because it is a convenient five minutes from the beach. They choose a location that is geographically stable and free from most natural disaster occurrences. A few considerations for an ideal location would be:

  • Geographically “remote” from weather-prone regions (including, but not limited to, hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, excessive heat, lots of snow, floods, earthquakes and meteor showers. Ok, I threw meteor showers in there just to make sure you are paying attention.)
  • Abundant local power supply
  • Cheap local power
  • Educated local workforce
  • Acclimatized, weatherized local population
  • Highly capable city services with excellent upkeep

Just because your answering service provider isn’t right down the street from you by no means indicates they are not the proper choice. They may actually be the best choice once all of the facts are considered.

HIPAA Compliance

The reason this topic should be of keen interest to business owners is that most answering services are built like….answering services. They have some backup systems in place. But they do not have a comprehensive plan bullet-proofing their operations at multiple levels. Many services are currently handling mission critical work that involves both HIPAA and PCI compliance issues. The problem is that these operations don’t really understand what HIPAA and PCI compliance even means.

“Yes! We are HIPAA compliant!” Really? So what does that mean? Are you HIPAA compliant at every level of your operation, or are you only saying that because you keep a backup data tape in a secure room somewhere? HIPAA compliance starts the minute anyone walks through the front door of a call center and doesn’t end just because they leave the facility. If you are part of a medical practice and you hire an answering service that calls themselves HIPAA compliant and they aren’t, you’ll be having a very interesting discussion with your patient’s lawyers. If you run an online order processing service, do you really want to get a call from your customer telling you that their credit card information was stolen by a customer service agent and their identity has subsequently been compromised? Think about it, bullet-proofing on all levels does matter.

Call centers and answering services that are built on platforms similar to data centers are in a much more advanced position that is designed to better serve and protect your business interests. Not only is there a strong program of redundancy required to keep systems and services online at all times, but the handling of data and confidentiality is also taken to a very extreme level.

Compliance Redundancy

Everyone seems to be HIPAA compliant today. Your sales agent tells you that his answering service is HIPAA compliant. But what is he saying? Likely, he is telling you that they do business the same way that they have always done business and that his call center agents promise not to share confidential patient information with anyone. But this clearly isn’t enough.

Businesses that take HIPAA seriously hold their agents accountable. Not only do they hold agents accountable, but they monitor absolutely every single individual that could potentially come in contact with HIPAA-sensitive information being discussed on the call center floor. This includes the electrician, the data cabling guy, the FedEx delivery guy and the girl that just delivered a pizza. Nobody, absolutely nobody goes into a HIPAA compliant call center without signing a waiver of confidentiality. That is the start of the process. To bolster that security, bulletproof answering services also have in place:

  • Security badge systems with entry/exit tracking
  • 24/7 camera and video surveillance
  • Business associate agreements in place with all of their medical accounts
  • Internal document disposal and removal processes
  • Proactive self-reporting processes in place for perceived lapses in following proper procedure

The list of steps necessary to be fully HIPAA compliant includes even more than this. But you get the idea. HIPAA compliance is more than just promising not to repeat something that you may have heard on a call center floor. It is a company-wide program for dealing with all forms of confidential information at every level within a business.

PCI is similar to HIPAA in that there is confidential information that is not to be shared. PCI takes a deep dive into a call center’s systems architecture to ensure that electronic data is safe and secure at multiple levels within an organization. Where is your call center’s data stored? What are they doing with all of your credit card information? It is time to ask.

Call Center Redundancies Ensure Trustworthy Up-time

Operator redundancy

Your answering service must be properly staffed at all times to handle your calls. This is obvious. But is your service properly staffed at all hours of the day and night? Many services have a dark little secret that they don’t tell you about – they only have a couple of agents in the call center at 2 a.m. The late-night shift at an answering service is affectionately known as the “graveyard” shift. It’s like a graveyard in the call center, because there is hardly anyone in it due to lower call volumes. Is having two operators on duty sufficient? What if one of them calls out? What if one of them doesn’t show up? What if one of them becomes ill and cannot return to the floor.

Are you going to feel comfortable knowing that there is only a couple agents in the call center available to manage every call, or heaven forbid, a call spike? Bullet-proof call center operations have double the agents required for critical shifts like this. A bullet-proof staffing plan keeps performance levels high and calls flowing smoothly through the operation so that callers are never left waiting for someone to answer or put on hold.

Switch Data Redundancy

A “switch” is the equipment needed by your phone answering service to process calls. Also called a “PBX” this system is the primary mechanism required to route calls to operators in an efficient manner. If a switch fails your service provider needs to have:

  • A backup switch on premise
  • A secondary switch at a remote location
  • A backup service in the cloud

Basically, there needs to be a backup somewhere.  Usually, you will find that a backup switch resides on site, which can be quickly enabled in an outage situation. Should a primary switch fail, backup systems must immediately run all switch processing from a backup drive (or switch). Once the primary drive is repaired or brought back online, all new data will be copied back to the primary drive and services will continue as normal. Of course, you will get an even stronger level of redundancy if your provider maintains a secondary system at another facility or in the cloud, because this prevents an outage should the local facility be brought completely down, as in the case of a devastating fire.

There are multiple levels of redundancy built into the switch as well. A few such “extras” would be:

  • Backup/secondary T1 Cards and voice boards
  • Extra ports
  • Redundant power supplies

A call center service provider that knows what they are doing builds in redundancy for everything.

Telco Redundancy

A “telco” is a general name for a company that provides telecommunication services. You may think of this as good old fashioned telephone lines. But a telco carries hundreds of thousands of them. Service providers contract with a telco to handle all of their incoming and outgoing phone traffic. So what happens if your answering service uses CenturyLink and CenturyLink experiences an outage? That’s right, no calls in or out.

Your carrier should have at least two telco providers on deck to provide inbound and outbound voice traffic. If the primary carrier fails, then the secondary carrier should seamlessly and immediately go online to maintain call traffic continuity. To make this happen, your answering service provider must make sure that not only is a secondary telco in place, but all of the equipment necessary to make a fail-over work is also in place and each piece of equipment must be completely redundant. For example, let’s say your call center has telco 1 and telco 2 to provide voice services. Now let’s say that telco 1 has an outage. Everything should roll seamlessly to telco 2. Great, that worked!

Internet Redundancy

Nowadays, most call centers use the Internet to carry their inbound and outbound phone services. This is known as “SIP” trunking. You can also call it VoIP. If you use the Internet to carry your phone traffic, guess what else you will need? You got it – backup Internet. Not only that, but you need a backup modem for each service provider in case your primary modem fails. See how this works? Two by two of everything.  Now, when your primary Internet carrier fails, or that carrier’s modem fails, your provider needs to have a firewall that can reroute Internet traffic. And not only a firewall, but a backup firewall that does the same thing that the primary one does should it fail. Whew!

Local Loop Equipment Redundancy

Most inbound and outbound call traffic is routed through very specialized equipment. One such example of this equipment is known as an Adtran unit. An Adtran may provide local loop access for your carrier’s trunk connections. Should an Adtran unit fail, systems will automatically reroute over the secondary Adtran unit. Once the primary is restored, systems will automatically revert to normal operations. Your call center needs to also maintain redundant telco equipment so that the failover continues to work. Let’s take a cue from the example used in the telco scenario above, only we will change it slightly:

Telco 1 is connected to your answering service provider through an AdTran unit which connects to their switch. The AdTran unit for telco 1 fails and so everything rolls to telco 2. Your call center also needs to have a backup AdTran unit to support telco 2 should the primary unit fail.

Air Conditioning Redundancy

All of this equipment required to keep calls flowing smoothly in and out of a call center tends to generate a lot of heat. Your service provider has to keep it all at a comfortable 70 degrees to keep it humming. That’s easy. Just use an air conditioner. But if an AC unit fails, then what do you do? They cannot afford to have massive amounts of equipment simply melt down. So a backup AC unit is required. Often, these AC units will run at alternately scheduled times to balance the load and extend the equipment’s lifespan.

Power Redundancy

There are multiple levels of power that can be generated by a call center. Normally, power generation starts with the local city utility. But city grids do go out. Especially during inclement weather, high winds, earthquakes and typhoons (you get the picture). If the local utility goes out, it is hard to say how long you will have to wait for power to be restored. If the local utility cannot provide power, then your answering service provider must create their own power. This is when diesel powered generators come in handy. Your answering service needs to have a fully equipped generator on-site that can provide power to the building for extended periods of time. The generator should immediately launch into action the moment the local utility fails so operators can continue to provide call center support services.

Uninterruptible Power Redundancy

If the local power utility fails and computers and phone switches go “hard down” they will likely not get back up again. Turning a PBX switch off cold or dropping critical servers in the middle of their operation routines can severely damage or kill computer systems. Your answering service provider cannot allow equipment to abruptly go offline. So there must be an interface between the local utility power and all of the systems necessary to run call center operations. That is where a UPS unit plays a vital role. A UPS unit, also known as an Uninterruptible Power Supply, provides that intermediary interface between the local power utilities and the call center systems. The UPS is always running in the background. So when the utilities go out, the UPS is already running and providing a parallel power supply to critical servers, which keeps systems from going “hard down.”

Now, what happens if your UPS dies? Ah. Redundancy. Again! A UPS system is basically an extended configuration of battery supply units. They are lined up in “banks” of batteries. Your service provider should have a UPS with a backup battery bank in case the primary fails. The UPS units are only intended to supply power to the entire building until the generator goes on. So it should only be used for a matter of seconds. But if the generator doesn’t start, the UPS is vital to keeping operations online.

IT Management Redundancy

Most every call center has an in-house Information Technology specialist that works full time on systems. It is a busy job keeping all of those agent computers running happily 24/7. Besides, there is a switch that needs regular maintenance, backups that need to be run and all kinds of collateral servers and software that are doing one thing or another. But what if the IT person gets sick or takes a vacation? Does your answering service provider just “wing it” and hope for the best? Or is there a redundant system in place to ensure that IT needs will be met 24/7? You got it – REDUNDANCY.

Your call center partner ought to have a backup or even outsourced IT team in place that helps to fill the gap. These managed service providers are often very helpful in troubleshooting high-end or complex problems that the local IT person cannot always solve. Besides, they are probably on call 24/7 and can be onsite in a snap to fix mission-critical support equipment.

IT Systems Redundancy

Every server in a call center requires a backup. Every single one. Every piece of electronic data requires a backup. And even another backup on top of that. Bulletproof call centers should be backing up information in triplicate on a 24/7 basis. All of these systems must be in a completely secured, locked facility with limited employee access. This “safe room” for all of the internal telephony, systems and storage services should also be protected by a Vesda monitoring system. A Vesda system works by constantly drawing air from the server room into a pipe network using a high-efficiency aspirator. Then a sample of this air is passed through a redundant filter system which removes dust and dirt from the air. Then this sample is passed through a laser detection chamber, which can identify particle matter such as smoke and other chemicals. In addition to providing clean air, the Vesda system constantly monitors for potential fire and chemical threats. If one is detected, an alarm system is immediately triggered.

Redundant Data

Everything must be backed up. Always. All the time. Does your BPO back up data? How many times? How many places? On site? Remotely? In the cloud? In today’s world you cannot operate effectively unless you have an effective backup data plan. Your answering service provider must know this and actively be backing up data in at least three places.

Redundant Vendors

You thought we were done? Not quite. It is important to consider redundant vendors, too. We’ve already touched on a few of these, but here is a short list for your consideration:

  • Fuel Vendors: Remember that generator that is required to power the building? Yep, there needs to be two fuel suppliers.
  • IT Service Vendors
  • Telco Vendors
  • Internet Service Providers
  • Equipment Providers
  • Data Backup Services
  • Data and cabling vendors
  • HVAC Vendors

Wow. Wow. Wow. That is a lot of redundancy to think about. But it should be thought about, considered, and put into a plan that works. Do you think it’s impossible for a call center to have all of this in place all at once? No, it is not impossible. Great call centers make business continuity just as much a part of their daily processes as answering the phones and handling your callers.

Do not overlook all this as a primary consideration when choosing the right call center partner. When you ask these questions and your sales agent looks at you like a deer in headlights, move on quickly to the next answering service on your list. You’ll be glad that you did. Don’t be afraid to dig in here, ask the tough questions, and get the answers you need to make the right decision.

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About Brian Gabriel

As the Call Center Manager for Sound Telecom, Brian is responsible for overseeing the daily operations and long term success of the company while managing a variety of inbound customer support programs. He also has a hand in taking care of the Solaxis services division. Prior to joining Sound Telecom, Mr. Gabriel held management positions with several prominent Internet Services companies including XpenseWise.com and Greatfood.com. Brian started his career in advertising and sales before moving to Washington State. He joined AEI Music in 1995 and supervised their international customer service department and technical support call centers. Brian received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish languages from San Diego State University. Brian teaches adult education at his church and actively supports Christian ministries.