Customer Service in Hurricanes

I live in South Florida. 9 months out of the year I live in paradise (not customer service paradise, just regular paradise). The other three months, living in Florida is absolutely miserable. It is hot, humid, rainy, and a few times a year, very windy and even more rainy when a hurricane or tropical storm rolls around.

When a hurricane or tropical storm comes around it is even worse than the usual hot, humid, and rainy. There are 30 car (if you’re lucky) lines to get gas, it is hard to even see through the lines in the grocery store and when the storm actually comes to the area: power outages, water outages, Internet outages, phone outages, wide-scale damage and destruction of varying degrees of seriousness, no traffic signals, and not much else.

In short, it’s not fun. A hurricane or tropical storm interrupts a lot of things. Businesses for adults, school for kids and the whole process happens over a period of a week or two. About three days of preparing, a day or two of the actual storm, and a week or so for everything to get back up and running. Then, it can literally take years for people to fix their houses, get their businesses up, and all of those things.

So how does this all tie into customer service? It certainly does, especially for companies in natural-disaster prone areas.

First of all, there are a lot of types of natural disasters. As far as I know, you can’t do much to prepare for these types:

  • Earthquakes
  • Tornados
  • Tsunamis

Those are the type of natural disasters that when you hear they are coming, you and your team need to leave. Forget about the tickets and be concerned about your health and safety. Your customers will understand.

Here are the types of disasters you have a better chance of preparing for/more notice:

  • Hurricanes/Tropical Storms
  • Blizzards
  • Severe flooding
  • Volcanoes

First and foremost: you and your team’s health and safety comes before anything else. If it is unsafe for you to operate, do not. Customers may be mad, but most of them will understand that your health and safety is more important than their account with your company.

Second: be prepared. That is the only way you can minimize business disruptions. You have to be prepared or nothing will work out right.

I’ve been through both blizzards and hurricanes (I did live in the Northeast for quite a while) and the preparations that you have to do are quite similar. I’ve never been through (thankfully) any of the other listed natural disasters.

Here are some tips for preparing your business for a hurricane, tropical storm, or other similar natural disaster:

  • Have a generator. If your business can afford one, it is a worthwhile investment. Get a built in generator that runs on natural gas and if that isn’t an option, and it runs on gas, get a guaranteed gas delivery. Make sure it can power what your business needs to operate (computers, servers, lights, etc.) for at least a week.
  • Have food/water. Chances are you’ll need lots of food and water. Have a week’s supply of food and water for the whole team that will stay in the office.
  • Consider the other things. Make sure that the plumbing will work, that people have a place to sleep, that food can be heated, a place to store the extra gas for the generator, etc. You have to consider everything and never assume something will work. You should also have at least one radio, battery powered TV, satellite phone, etc. in the office so you monitor things.
  • Get dialup accounts. My phones usually keep working during the hurricanes, so I can get on the Internet with dialup. Purchase a few NetZero or Earthlink accounts before the storms and make sure they work. You can use these to connect to the Internet and do whatever you have to do (slowly, but surely). Some larger buildings/companies have redundant Internet connections, which is great if you can get it, but not always available.
  • Ask for volunteers. Ask for volunteers to stay at your office during the storm. Explain that it may actually be safer and more comfortable at the office than their house and if there is room, food, etc., let them bring their families. You may also wish to give employees that say a monetary bonus after the storm if they did particularly well.
  • Send staff elsewhere. Equip a few of your staff members with laptops or appointments for a hotel’s business center and send them to somewhere the storm won’t be (be sure to send them ahead of time). This way they can post updates, help respond to tickets, or whatever else needs to be done.
  • Tell clients. Tell clients the truth and give them plenty of updates. Tell them what you are doing to prepare for the storm, how (if at all) their service will be interrupted, and anything else they should know. Some customers will be understanding, others will not.
  • Setup an emergency queue. Explain to customers that you are short-staffed and to only contact (or whatever) if they have an emergency such as a service outage, etc. Tell them you will monitor that queue, but only to send emergencies. Explain common ways to see if something is actually down so they can know whether or not to contact you. Some customers will send non-emergency requests to that email address. Just move them or delete them and move on.

Basically all you can do is be prepared and do your best. Conditions always change and your health and safety is the number one priority.

Here is Service Untitled’s emergency plan: my health and safety is taken care of, I have a generator and a dialup Internet account if need be (which is quite likely), and plenty of food/water. I’m not sure if the phones and subsequently, my dialup account will work, but you can expect postings to be delayed/non-existent over the next few days.

I’m not too worried about my health or safety, but hurricanes/tropical storms are never too fun.