JetBlue Snafu Stresses Need to Plan for Overflow
March 5, 2007 (Vol. 28, No. 5)
“Due to heavy call volumes, we cannot process your call.” Then the dull hum of dial tone that lets you know you’ve been disconnected.
That may have not been the exact language of JetBlue Airways’ automated recording, played for callers Feb. 19 – five days after a major snowstorm forced the $2.4 billion airline to cancel 23% of its scheduled flights – but it’s close. Besides leaving passengers trapped on runways for as long as 10 hours, the enterprise suffered a flood of calls that overwhelmed its 1,500 work-from-home reservation agents, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
A failing in JetBlue’s online reservation system is partially to blame, JetBlue’s director of customer commitment reportedly told the newspaper. Customers who wanted to rebook their flights could do so online and pay a penalty plus any fare difference, but the disruption in flight operations entitled customers to free flight changes – which they could only get by calling an agent, according to the newspaper.
JetBlue’s agents reportedly fielded as many as 44,000 calls a day, and the overflow persisted even after the airline added 600 agents and supervisors – a 40% increase. Still, there weren’t enough phone lines, a problem the airline now reportedly plans to rectify as a result of its most recent experience.
How badly could such a snafu hurt your bottom line? Citing “service disruptions resulting from the Feb. 14, 2007, New York metropolitan area ice storm and related recovery period,” JetBlue has restated its earnings projections. It now expects to report a pretax margin of -10% to -8% for the first quarter, even worse than the -4% to -2% pretax margins it previously predicted.
Dishwasher Danger Another Example of Contact Center Threat
Think your enterprise is safe from contact center overflow issues because it doesn’t deal in the high call-volume transportation business?
Consider the negative consequences for $14 billion appliance manufacturer Whirlpool when it was forced last month to issue a recall for 2.3 million Maytag and Jenn-Air dishwashers that reportedly posed a fire hazard from rinse-aid liquid seeping into internal wiring. Whirlpool reportedly offered free in-home repairs or $75 off the purchase of a new dishwasher. However, customers were unable to reach live agents to schedule repairs and got a message to call back later, the Associated Press reported.
There are a number of reasons why any enterprise’s contact center can become overwhelmed, warns Sheila McGee-Smith, a 20-year telecom industry veteran with a focus on contact centers. The founder of McGee-Smith Analytics, in Amherst, N.H., points to the Tylenol-tampering scare of the 1980s, the Columbine High School tragedy and flu epidemics at hospitals as examples of possible triggers.
While both JetBlue and Whirlpool officials declined to interview with Voice Report as their companies hustle to catch up with customer demands, we consulted contact center pros for their advice in preparing for extraordinary call volumes. Consider their tips:
Tip #1: Buy Time with Re-Scripted IVR
Be ready to re-script your interactive voice response (IVR) to postpone non-emergency calls until the next day, suggests Nancy Miller, senior consultant in professional services for ISC Consultants Inc., in New York City. She proposes this sample script for an enterprise in JetBlue’s predicament:
“Due to special weather conditions, all of our flights have been cancelled. For this reason, expect heavy call delays. If your call isn’t an emergency, please call back tomorrow afternoon.”
Such a message could reduce your overwhelming call volumes by 50%, says Miller, who reports having overseen the installation of a couple hundred contact centers across North America in her 25-year career. Customers will understand the situation and be pleased with your promise to address their questions in the near future, she asserts. Consider recording such a general emergency message in advance so it can be used in a variety of situations, Miller advises.
Also consider directing callers to your enterprise’s Web site for more information, McGee-Smith suggests. Updating its Web site is another step JetBlue reportedly plans to take following its recent disaster.
Tip #2: Ask About ‘Occasional’ Licenses
Bringing extra agents in during an emergency requires giving them licenses to use the contact center software, and most vendors will charge you full price to have those seats idle until an emergency occurs, McGee-Smith warns.
Pricing varies with volume, but an enterprise of JetBlue’s size could expect to pay a one-time fee of $1,000 per full license, plus 20% of the license cost per year for automatic upgrades and break/fix software support, the analyst estimates. And that’s for voice-only licenses. Adding “multichannel” communications to your contact center software, like e-mail and live Web chat, will bump it up to $2,000 per license, McGee-Smith says.
Avaya charges $840 per voice-only license and roughly $2,000 per multimedia license, though pricing is volume-dependent, says spokeswoman Mary Thiele. Avaya does not have a program in place to offer lower-priced occasional licenses, Thiele says, “but we’re always ready to work with our customers to meet their needs.”
The good news: You’ll need one license per station, not per agent. For example, three agents who each work different shifts could share one license, McGee-Smith explains.
More good news: Some vendors do sell licenses for occasional use at reduced prices. Siemens sells “associate desktop licenses” for its ProCenter product to those customers that have already purchased a set of full licenses, says spokesman Jacob Rice. Associate desktop licenses cost 33% less than full licenses but are somewhat reduced in functionality, he says.
Tip #3: Reverse Centralization Trend
Another solution to contact center overload – should an emergency bring in a barrage of calls to your East Coast locations, for example – is to direct overflow to the West Coast. Decentralizing contact centers has emerged as a best practice with the help of IP telephony, reversing the centralization trend that took hold in the mid-1990s, Miller notes. Transferring calls across your graphically distant offices is as easy as programming the ACD to send calls to idle agents at both sites, she says.
Nortel has made it easier to shift calls to another contact center by adding a network-type license option whereby enterprises can purchase licenses to be shared by a pool of agents in diverse locations, says Ken Steinhoff, telecom manager at Palm Beach Newspapers, in West Palm Beach, Fla., whose 100-plus-agent contact center uses Nortel’s Contact Center Manager. (