Article | October 12, 2017

Business Continuity: Plan Now Or Pay Later

By Greg Coleman, principal partner and VP of strategic programs at Service Strategies Corporation

Field Service Business Continuity

Corporations are vulnerable to all manner of conditions that can interrupt business operations, ranging from major events such as earthquakes and hurricanes to less publicized, but potentially damaging events such as IT system failures, communications interruptions and cyber security breaches. Such events can levy protracted damage to a company if business services are interrupted for any length of time.

Over the past several years, business continuity planning has been brought into focus as companies were forced to deal with a number of disaster-related business interruptions, such as the recent devastating hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida. Companies that are unprepared for such disasters can face serious business consequences such as loss of revenue and customers due to a lack of proper business continuity planning.

While typical business continuity and disaster recovery plans focus on core areas such as backing up data, evacuating facilities and communication of office closures to employees, many ignore the most public-facing aspect of the business: customer service and support.

Poor planning is particularly troublesome for service operations since these organizations are the primary point of contact for most companies. Dropping the ball on the service front during a crisis removes the ability of a company to communicate with its customers - a critical asset in the event of significant business disruption. Falling silent during a disaster, or allowing customer service to respond in an uncoordinated fashion could have a significant impact on company image, overall customer satisfaction and, consequently, on the company’s bottom line.

Companies continue to face a myriad of potential threats such as a record hurricane season, fears of pandemic flu outbreaks, increasing potential for cyber security breaches and many others. Companies who have not fully incorporated the service operations into their plans are exposing themselves to the potential for severe consequences as a result of this oversight.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to add the critical component services to corporate business continuity plans. The primary objective should be to minimize the impact an outage or disruption has on service operations and to implement effective communication strategies to keep customers informed during interruptions.

Creating A Bulletproof Plan

While developing an effective plan will require significant effort, the results will be well worth it. The planning efforts will act as an insurance policy and provide some peace of mind to corporate management, secure in the knowledge that all consideration is being given to safe guarding against future disruptions. An effective plan will help prioritize the steps necessary to enable recovery from a wide array of potential scenarios that can interrupt operations. The plan should prepare the service organization to continue assisting customers during the initial phases of an incident and include short, medium and long-term contingencies since an event can last one day or potentially several months.

Another important element to business continuity planning is getting the word out. A successful plan will identify those employees responsible for not only carrying out the necessary functions to ensure a smooth transition to contingent services, but also those responsible for maintaining contact lists, providing the communications necessary to keep all parties informed of status, timelines, processes, implementation and resolution issues. Keeping customers apprised of the status of recovery efforts is also an important part of the communications process. By proactively keeping them informed you can minimize inquiries about service outages which may distract you from recovery efforts and help to ease customer concerns about the situation.

Training employees on the plan is equally important. Educating the broader staff on key aspects of the plan will ensure that they are prepared when the time comes to implement the plan. Providing key employees handbooks (either hardcopy or as a PDF on local devices) detailing contingency procedures will ensure that they are available even if IT or communications systems go down. A smaller percentage of businesses rely on the Internet for their sole delivery of business continuity plans, however this is not recommended. Whenever possible, it is best to have redundant methods of communication and access to contingency procedures available to all employees.

The service portion of the business continuity plan should cover as many operational areas as possible to ensure that the organization can recover quickly. Contingencies should include key elements such as plans for customer data recovery, rerouting of telecommunications or falling back to manual systems for logging customer interactions. In additional considerations should be given to utilizing secondary service centers, offsite facilities or third party providers to handle customer interactions while primary service functions in affected areas recover.

To ensure their relevancy, business continuity plans need to be reviewed and updated periodically. It is important that they reflect the current operational plan for recovery. Typically such plans are updated on an annual basis at most, and more frequently depending on pace of change within the business environment. The plans should also undergo scheduled testing by the service organization to ensure that they can be implemented effectively. Copies of the plan should be kept outside of the corporate environment in the event that facilities are not accessible. The benefits of having a solid plan in place cannot be understated. The risks to the business are far too great to ignore.

Disaster Recovery Best Practices

So what can service organizations do to ensure their business continuity plans are up to par? Here are some best practices to consider that may help to enhance your organizations plan. These best practices are aligned with industry standards for service and support operations.

  • Ensure that the business continuity plan is fully documented in every respect. Ascertain if the appropriate service and support personnel have been trained to execute the plan in the event of an emergency, and if not, train them immediately.
  • Include detailed task lists, contact numbers, decision criteria, roles and responsibilities, timelines and short, medium and long-term contingencies for each potential scenario defined in the plan.
  • Include a documented test plan that defines specific test scenarios. The test plan should be executed according to a defined schedule, such as quarterly or semi-annually. This will ensure that the contingency plan can be effectively implemented when necessary. There is nothing worse than having a plan that cannot be implemented when needed.
  • Conduct a periodic risk analysis to assess system vulnerabilities, prioritize potential threats and define contingencies to address issues identified through the analysis. Doing so will help to identify potential risks that may not have been considered when the original plan was developed.
  • Ensure that clearly defined service level agreements with the internal Information Technology organization and/or system vendors are in place. The service level agreements should specify uptime and return to service commitments for critical systems. This will help to ensure that recovery time can be properly estimated and enable the organization to set proper expectations with customers.
  • In some mission critical service environments, put plans in place to reroute customer inquiries to alternate corporate service centers or leverage third party service providers. As an alternative, contract with third parties for use of “hot sites” that will enable temporary relocation of service operations. Any of these options should be tested routinely.
  • Develop notification messages for employees and customers to inform them of potential outages or disaster situations. As an example scripted voice messages, pre-drafted email messages, Twitter and website postings and press release templates can be developed in advance and ready for customization and deployment when necessary.
  • After the plan has been tested or even implemented during real world situations, conduct post mortem reviews to identify opportunities for further improvement. This will ensure that future incidents are handled even better and help to eliminate gaps in the plan.

Aligning your business continuity plans with industry standards and best practices will ensure that you are fully prepared in the event of an emergency. Once you have built a solid plan, consider undergoing an external audit of your preparedness to gain further insight into your readiness for handling a catastrophic event.

After all the planning, preparation and testing, true success is evident only when the plan delivers on its promise during a real-world situation. The ability to continue operating during a crisis is a testament to the commitment of providing world-class service to your customers. While no company looks forward to having to put their plan to use, once it becomes necessary, it quickly becomes evident of just how mission-critical such a plan is to the success of the company.

Don’t wait for the next hurricane, power outage or catastrophic event to test your readiness. Dust off you business continuity plan today and ensure that you are prepared to face the challenges that await. It is not a matter of if a situation will arise, rather when it will. If you do your due diligence and take the time to fully prepare, your efforts will pay handsomely in the form of uninterrupted business operations. If successful, you will not only be minimizing the financial impacts of the situation, you will be building trust and loyalty among your customer base by continuing to serve them during difficult times.

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About The Author

Greg Coleman is a principal partner and vice president of strategic programs at Service Strategies Corporation. He resides in San Diego, California and has more than 25 years of experience in the high-technology service and support field. Coleman has worked with leading technology organizations around the world to develop and deploy global standards for service performance. You can email him at gcoleman@servicestrategies.com.

Service Strategies advances service excellence by helping companies deliver the highest quality service and support to their clients. Thousands of service professionals around the world have enhanced their skills through participation in the company’s training and certification courses. In addition, its standards, strategic advisory and consulting services help service organizations optimize business operations and achieve substantial performance gains. For more information visit www.servicestrategies.com or email info@servicestrategies.com.