Savvy Investment Helps NJ 2-1-1 Weather the Storm

Customer Service
Customer Service
The New Jersey 2-1-1's cloud-based contact center was instrumental in keeping the service ongoing after Hurricane Sandy.

Preparedness is crucial for organizations to deliver the promised and expected customer experience even during difficult times. This is even more important for essential services that become critical when something goes wrong.

For the New Jersey 2-1-1 service, the free phone number and online database that connects residents to community resources and emergency information, keeping the telephone lines running is essential. The role of the NJ 2-1-1 becomes even more important when a disaster hits and residents rely on the service to get information.

In fact, the service proved to be vital for residents who were looking for information both before and especially after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the United States' East Coast last October, leaving thousands of people without power and many homes destroyed. According to Laura Zink Marx, executive director of the NJ 2-1-1 Partnership, the outcome would have been a lot different if the organization had still been dependent on a premise-based phone system instead of moving its contact center to the cloud.

Preparing for worst-case scenarios

The NJ 2-1-1's experience with natural disaster responsiveness dates back to 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Zink Marx says the contact center was at the receiving end of tens of thousands of phone calls by people who wanted to make donations. At the time, the organization was using a premise-based system and Zink Marx explains that NJ 2-1-1 didn't have a way to extend its capability except by adding more lines, which can take time. "Back in those days we started wondering whether there was a better solution that could really extend our capability and allow us to answer to a surge," she says.

In 2011, the organization started looking into a new contact center solution. "As we looked at new phone systems and prepared alongside Homeland and Security, the central question was always whether we'd be able to respond in a way that truly upholds our end of the bargain and allow people to get through in the case of a truly large event," Zink Marx notes.

While considering the new system, the NJ 2-1-1 saw its service come under pressure in August 2011 in the days leading to Hurricane Irene. Zink Marx says the contact center experienced a 20 percent surge in calls. "Anytime the Governor was telling people to call 2-1-1 [for information,] we were seeing a surge," she says. The hype surrounding the storm was enough to increase the number of calls, and although the contact center was able to handle the increase, this experience cemented the need to move to a cloud-based contact center that could be operated from anywhere and easily extended to cater for increased demand.

Last year, the NJ 2-1-1 implemented a cloud-based contact center by Five9 but decided to keep its former premise-based systems as backups. The new system proved indispensible at the end of October, when Hurricane Sandy hit and the NJ 2-1-1 received 75 percent of its annual workload over just six weeks during which agents fielded around 90,000 calls. But with telephone lines running through a badly flooded New York, the old system went down during the storm and remained so for weeks afterwards. Zink Marx says while the premise-based system could eventually have been routed around the flood zone, this would have taken time, rendering the NJ 2-1-1 ineffective during a very sensitive time. "We'd have been unable to answer any calls and would have had to rely 100 percent on our partners, who are also running their 2-1-1 organizations," she says.

While the NJ 2-1-1 headquarters in Whippany was not affected by the storm, Zink Marx notes that a cloud-based system would have been instrumental if the office had lost power or connectivity, or if agents were unable to get to work. She explains that agents only need their laptops, headsets, and an Internet connection to do their work, allowing the organization to send agents home in different geographical locations before the storm hit. "Had we lost power, we could have gone to the local police department and worked from there," Zink Marx says.

Knowledge system proves vital

The cloud-based system allowed Zink Marx to see the exact increase in call volume as it was happening, giving her time to contact other 2-1-1 systems around the country to ask for help dealing with incoming calls. This flexibility meant that Zink Marx could decide which calls to route to other localities and which ones to continue sending to the New Jersey agents.

In fact, in the days after the storm the NJ 2-1-1 outsourced thousands of its incoming calls to partners in Palm Beach, Houston, Vermont, and a second call center in New Jersey. The cloud-based knowledge base meant that agents of other 2-1-1 systems that were helping out with the calls could see the exact same information, which was being constantly updated, as their colleagues in New Jersey, ensuring that callers were getting the same details irrespective of whoever answered the phone.

Another function was the ability to place and change recorded messages within the IVR, giving essential information to callers, many of whom were without power and were using precious phone battery to contact the NJ 2-1-1. "We could never have done it without the [recording option] because we wouldn't have been able to answer all these calls," Zink Marx says. For example, a few days after the storm a rumor that FEMA was handing out food vouchers started making the rounds, triggering an avalanche of calls by residents who wanted to know where they could get the vouchers from. Zink Marx says the organization quickly recorded a voice message informing callers that the rumor wasn't true and disaster food stamps were not yet available in New Jersey. "This can help reduce the frustration of people who might have otherwise waited on the line to speak with an agent," she notes. Further, callers were able to leave a voicemail asking to be contacted once the vouchers had arrived, and the NJ 2-1-1 brought in volunteers to make these calls four weeks after the storm when the food stamps became available.

Zink Marx attributes much of the success of the NJ 2-1-1's responsiveness to the contact center. "We had been preparing for this for a long time and the one question everyone had was whether we could handle the surge and we did," she says.