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It's Not Just Peanuts: How Rapid Customer Response Can Protect Your Brand

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It's Not Just Peanuts: How Rapid Customer Response Can Protect Your Brand

April 07, 2009
By Rob Duncan
Chief Operating Officer, Alpine Access
Peanuts. Who would have thought that the negligence of one peanut manufacturer would result in the deadliest food contamination outbreak in the past 20 years? The Food and Drug Administration considered peanut butter a low-risk food. Yet, to date, 683 people in 43 states have become ill from salmonella after eating contaminated peanut products and nine have died. This salmonella outbreak, which was traced back to the Peanut Corporation of America in September 2008, has affected hundreds of companies, led to the recall of more than 3,200 products and could ultimately cost the U.S. peanut industry billions of dollars (Reuters (News - Alert), 3/12/09).

 
Companies in the industry raced to protect themselves as peanut butter and peanut product sales dropped 25 percent. Many companies used independent third-party tests to prove salmonella didn’t exist in their products. Still, people weren’t satisfied. With the public demanding accountability, the only shield most companies had was their brands.
 
J.M. Smucker Company, makers of JIF peanut butter, ran an ad campaign reinforcing their focus on safety. Others issued press releases or posted notices on their websites. However, the majority of companies had to rely on quick, efficient communication to defend their reputations, strengthen customer loyalty and restore consumer confidence. But with just days to prepare, how could they possibly find enough experienced people to handle the unavoidable onslaught of customer calls?
 
Virtual, Home-Based Customer Care Centers Ideal for Rapid Response and Brand Preservation
 
Customer service has the power to escalate or diffuse a crisis situation depending on how it is performed. With today’s technology tools, unhappy customers can instantly broadcast their complaints to millions of people in under a minute. Try to cover up or evade the truth and you could create a tsunami of negative response. On the other hand, most consumers will be reasonable and understanding when provided with quick access to truthful information. In the heat of the moment, all those years of high customer satisfaction scores no longer matter. Instead, customers care about what you are doing to fix their immediate problem.
 
The good news is that how you and your customer service team respond could actually end up improving your customer loyalty. A friendly, helpful voice on the other end of the phone rather than a busy signal will communicate through actions that your brand stands for doing what is right. It’s not easy to come out of a crisis with a stronger corporate image, but with the right customer service partner behind you, it can be done.
 
Home-based, virtual customer care centers are ideally suited for supporting clients during times of unforeseen crisis. The built-in flexibility of the home-based model makes it possible to have a team of quality Customer Care Professionals (CCPs) trained and on the phones in days - a stark contrast to slower-moving brick and mortar call centers. Here’s how they do it:
 
Step 1: Locate customer care professionals in less than 24 hours.
When a crisis hits, companies usually have little advance notice. The need for an immediate increase in customer service capacity makes it nearly impossible to locate enough staff using traditional hiring methods. There’s simply not enough time to place an advertisement, review resumes, interview prospects and run background checks – a process that takes on average 12 weeks. Home-based customer care centers have the distinct advantage of operating virtually, which provides instant access to thousands of qualified prospects from around the country. Alpine Access, for example, has a current database of over 200,000 pre-screened CCP prospects and an Emergency Response Team ready to go a moments notice.
 
In addition to the largest pool of candidates in the nation, some virtual customer care centers have groups of “stand-by” employees. These experienced CCPs have completed customer service skills training and are either waiting to be assigned to a client or have requested additional hours. Managers can tap into both of these ready resources to locate employees in less than one day. 
 
Step 2: Train the team virtually day or night.
Once enough employees are located to adequately staff for the anticipated influx of calls, each person must be trained. At a brick-and-mortar center, employees are forced to drive to a central location to attend training during normal business hours. This is not acceptable when time is short. With 100% distance-based learning programs, virtual contact centers can train employees 24 hours a day. In fact, CCPs can sit in their home-based offices and go through training at 2 a.m. if it will help meet the client’s need.
 
Step 3: Eliminate the worry.
Whether you have a crisis communication plan or not, there are thousands of things to think about and handle when your company is in the middle of a difficult situation. From marketing issues to employee communications to investor questions, company executives are pulled in many directions. Having the rapid response capabilities of a home-based, virtual call center partner at your disposal means your customer service is one less thing to worry about.
 
The Peanut Recall: How Rapid Response Customer Care Preserved One Company’s Reputation and Brand
 
Forward Foods, LLC produces and markets high protein energy and snack bars. Its line of Detour Activity Bars has won numerous quality awards and leads the industry in terms of convenience and taste. Unfortunately, a few flavors of the company’s energy bars contained roasted peanuts manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Although all Detour Bars were thoroughly tested by an independent third-party and verified to be safe for consumption, Forward Foods voluntarily recalled all products containing peanuts from PCA.
 
Costco was a significant distributor for a few of the identified products. Therefore, part of the recall process involved sending a letter to Costco’s membership base with a phone number to call for information on product disposal and refunds. Two days before the letter was to be received by consumers, Forward Foods realized their internal customer service department would be unable to handle the expected increase in call volume. At 3 p.m. on Monday, February 2, 2009 Forward Foods called Alpine Access. Two hours later they were a new client. Alpine Access immediately tapped into its pool of available employees and within one day was able to locate enough skilled Customer Care Professionals (CCPs) to handle the expected call volume. By 9a.m. on Wednesday, February 4, these employees were trained and on the phones answering questions from Forward Foods’ customers. 
 
Over the next few days, CCPs talked to over 1100 customers and company executives received real-time updates that helped keep them stay on top of the crisis. Forward Foods was amazed with how quickly a virtual contact center could respond to such an immediate need. The director of marketing was thankful to have partnered with a home-based customer care center saying “Alpine Access was highly professional and responsive to our needs for a quick call center set up. They made my job easier.”
 
Customer Service and Crisis Planning
 
The recent peanut crisis should make all companies take a hard look at their current crisis plans or lack thereof. In addition to business continuity planning, have you thought about how to take care of your customers? They are, after all, your biggest asset. In times of crisis, virtual contact centers can help you respond quickly and deliver quality customer service that will reinforce the reasons consumers trusted your brand in the first place. With a little planning and the right partner, your company can not only survive an unforeseen event, but emerge with a stronger brand and more loyal customers.
 
 

Rob Duncan is COO of Alpine Access, Inc., a Golden, Colorado-based provider of contact center services using exclusively home-based customer service and sales employees.Duncan can be reached at 303-279-0585.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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