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Preparing for the unexpected: how do you handle customer demand during a disaster?

Customer Engagement Customer Outcomes Highlights Surge Support
Customer Engagement Customer Outcomes Highlights Surge Support

When disaster strikes, customers call — so having a plan to manage surge capacity should be part of your continuity planning, says TSA Group Chief Executive Officer Luke Kenny.

Customer-facing businesses are used to peaks and troughs in customer calls, whether that is a rush before Christmas as buyers chase down deliveries or an uptick in enquiries when a marketing campaign goes live.

But when something goes terribly wrong, having a surge strategy in place to manage demand becomes critical.

Long delays on the phone or a lack of proactive engagement can lead to angry stakeholders, diminished corporate reputation and — sometimes — a loss of customers and market share.


So how should a business prepare for the unexpected?

TSA Group Chief Executive Officer Luke Kenny says contact centre capacity should be seen as a central pillar of business continuity planning, with natural disasters and data breaches underscoring the risk of failing to address surging customer demand.

On the back of the NSW and Queensland flooding events, TSA Group has been working with insurers to provide quick-start surge capacity to handle significant increases in call numbers, recognising that events such as floods or fires lead to an intense period of customer engagement in the weeks following the disaster.

“If we use the insurance industry as an example, any extreme weather event tends to have a peak in customer engagement about six weeks from that point, once people have started to assess the damage and are looking for support to recover,” Mr Kenny says.

“At that point, insurers have a huge claims portfolio to manage and they frequently need additional support to help manage that influx of demand. Alternatively, they can use our services to manage business-as-usual activity while their in-house team takes on the work of triaging claims.”

With more than 4000 staff, most working in contact centres, TSA Group has streamlined the process of hiring, training and deploying contact teams to reduce the time needed to get an operator up to speed.

“We’ve got a cloud-based knowledge and learning management system, and as long as we’ve got the content that needs to be ingested, we can scale that very quickly,” Mr Kenny says.

“We can respond a lot quicker and mobilise a lot faster than most organisations can manage themselves — particularly as they are already under the pump servicing the spiralling demand and would need to take people from elsewhere in their operations.

“If I’m looking at timelines, it probably takes a corporate business somewhere between 10 and 12 weeks to take an operator from street to seat, whereas we’re doing that in five to seven weeks, sometimes faster.


“No one likes being left on hold, but the decision by more than 20,000 Qantas customers to petition the business to hire more call centre staff shows the risk to airlines and travel companies of long delays and calls going unanswered.”

Man holding mobile back facing camera

Read more about the challenges faced by the travel industry as they experience surges in inbound customer contact:


“The other element that is valuable is the difference on internal morale. When you have a peak in calls, you often see employee sentiment decline because suddenly those employees have to take on extra work to manage unpredicted demand.

“But we find with clients who have TSA Group as part of their toolkit, morale is less likely to be impacted because when the demand hits, we can take care of the surge.”

A jump of thousands of calls can be a challenge but a jump in the millions can be catastrophic, as mass-data breach events such as those affecting Medibank and Optus have shown.

Not only is it almost impossible to field those kinds of numbers overnight — Mr Kenny estimates it once took 150 team members three months to contact a million customers — but it also is impractical to rely solely on one form of communication.

“You have to be much more strategic,” he says.


Strategies to manage and shape surging demand

“To think about this practically, on day one of that activity, we would be taking all the call data, all the information and saying, ‘right — here’s what has been asked and here are all the process improvements that arise from these questions and concerns.’

“We then implement digital deflection.

Right from day one, we take the influx of calls from customers asking, ‘have I been affected?’. On subsequent days, we’ll have the data to proactively reach out to customers to let them know if they have been affected and keep them updated on their questions and concerns, to reduce inbound traffic and wait times.

“You let them know they can still get in contact but you have shaped the demand. We also add in automation that can take the edge off the demand by collecting some of the basic information automatically, which then frees up that time to field more calls.

“Finally, you look at all the potential channels. Moving to message channels might not be as fast as a voice call but you can better handle the volume and people feel comfortable that you have heard them and are responding to them in a timely manner.”

While not all disasters can be predicted, Mr Kenny says some businesses are planning ahead to organise the contact centre training, scripts and materials needed in advance.

“You might not know all the details, but you can at least have a plan for what happens if there is a data breach, what happens if we have a natural disaster, what happens if we have an event that requires hundreds or thousands of customers to try to contact us at once,” he says.

“Customer contact is critical to the reputation of your business, so a surge in demand should absolutely be on your corporate risk register, along with a plan to manage that surge, if and when it occurs.”



TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX Consultancy and Contact Centre Services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.

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