Background & Overview

Since its inception in 2005, Premiere Response has provided customer care crisis support services for a wide array of companies ranging from small start-ups to iconic Fortune 100 names. Whether it’s food, baby strollers, a medical device, a security breach or an electronic component, informing the world something has gone wrong with your brand can be a tenuous time for all involved. In each case, the essence of the support needed remains the same – protect our customers, protect our brand and get us back to business as usual.

Recently, we were approached by a well known natural foods company asking for customer care assistance. The company was issuing a press release announcing a voluntary recall of 100% of specific products the next day. The recall was due to the possible presence of salmonella. Normally, the consumer affairs team handled under 50 calls per day for the impacted brand. Based on the scale of the recall, the company determined that they needed an outsource partner to handle the projected surge in contact volume.

Day One – Ready, Set, Go

Premiere Response leveraged its crisis team which initiated an accelerated program set up using an implementation plan that focused on People, Process and Technology. That day we secured a dedicated toll free number for the client’s press release, identified a manager along with a team of representatives to handle contacts, and provided proposed phone messaging for client approval. We confirmed a core team on the client side and scheduled update calls every two hours.

By the second update call we were informed about a change. Instead of using our toll free number, the client decided to utilize its toll free number, a dedicated line they had used for prior recalls. The decision was based largely on the fact that the Press Release was in its final stages of approval. Instead of calls coming directly to Premiere Response’s phone system, callers would hit the client system first then be redirected to us. To accommodate this change, we set up a local phone number that pointed to our phone system for that purpose.

Along with setting up the telephony side, we worked with the client team to define the “business rules” for proper contact handling. We began by formalizing proof of purchase requirements, handling of media inquiries, illness claims, additional languages and emails. We crafted anticipated questions for the FAQs and defined reporting requirements.

Expecting high call volume, our recommendation was to funnel all calls through an IVR that allowed all callers to leave their contact and product information so they could have a refund sent to them without the need to speak to a live agent. Callers who wanted to speak with a live agent had that option as well. The IVR was available to callers 24 hours a day and the live agent option would be available 7 days a week, until 9:00pm eastern. By the next day, messaging was recorded and in place, call disposition and customer information screens were configured and we were ready to take calls.

The Press Release dropped and the FDA posted the recall announcement to the public in what felt like record time. We were officially “live”.

The call volume seemed very light at first, but in those early hours that can be expected. We knew the “wave” would hit soon. It’s been our experience that most of the volume hits within the first two weeks (unless stimulated by another source, i.e. retailer announcements or media coverage).

We were getting some calls hitting our switch, but nothing like we expected. Our initial test calls were all successful, but volume was trickling in at best. We made additional test calls to the client’s toll free number and realized we were getting “fast busy” signals on all of our test calls. The “wave” of call volume had hit, but the client’s phone system didn’t have the capacity to handle all of the calls. Not only were consumers calling about the recall not able to get through, but callers dialing any of the client’s numbers were not able to get through. They couldn’t even dial internally from one employee to another. The volume blew up their phone system.

Day Two – Houston, We Have a Problem

As you can imagine, this was bad on so many levels. All of their consumers (not just from this product line) were impacted, their employees were impacted and posting a toll free number that can’t be answered makes the FDA and social media very unhappy.

Our phone system had more than enough capacity to handle the volume, because we’ve designed it to handle call spikes and be nimble enough to move phone call traffic to additional servers if needed. We could manage this volume as well as the volume on all of our other programs across North America.

Working with the client team, we suggested that we do an emergency RESPORG of their toll free number. This would mean we would take ownership of their number and it would reside with our carrier and point to our system. We were all in agreement that this was the quickest way to resolve a bad situation.

Meanwhile, we had over 16,000 calls redirected to us. Even though their toll free number had “blockage” some callers were able to get through as soon as a line was available. It was clear to us that callers were dialing the toll free number, getting a busy and then dialing back immediately. The telephony teams and carriers worked together late into the night and the toll free number was moved to our system. Tomorrow would be a better day.

Day Three – Holy Volume Batman!

We were prepared for a tidal wave, but after reviewing the previous day’s call statistics we felt confident that our messaging was on point. Nearly 53% of those 16,000 callers determined from our upfront messaging they didn’t have product that was impacted. They disconnected after the recall statement portion of the IVR. About 46% of the 16,000 callers chose to leave their details in our automated system to request their refund and only a little over 1,400 callers wanted to speak to a live agent.

We ended day three with similar statistics but it was nearly 49,000 calls hitting our IVR and only 7% of them wanted to speak with a live agent. As expected our phone system maintained the capacity needed to handle this volume.

Day Four – and More

By day four we knew that this was not going to be a two week event (typically most recalls last between 2-8 weeks). We secured a staff of transcriptionists to listen to the tens of thousands recordings from the IVR, turning those audio files into customer records by entering them into our data base. Later they’d be sorted, de-duplicated and sent as a file to the client’s accounting team for refund check provisioning.

Illness claims and Media inquiries received high priority handling and were sent to the client team for immediate attention, within hours of receiving them. Callbacks were conducted to resolve incomplete details left in the IVR and additional reporting was created to help the client estimate the soaring refund totals.

We settled into a pattern of predictable volume through week one getting some spikes after the retailers robo-called their loyalty base. During week two, one of the large membership clubs sent a letter detailing the recall to members that “may have” purchased the product and volume spiked again.

As with most recalls, this program followed a predictable trajectory. Call volume spiked when the rest of the client’s major retail partners informed their loyalty members, but began to even out by week four. As the volume declined, live agent weekend hours were reduced, then eliminated, and the data capture portion of the IVR was replaced with basic messaging. As we were nearing week six, we recommended changes to the business rules for proof of purchase requirements to minimize fraudulent refund requests.

By week eight, the volume had trickled down to a few callers inquiring about their refund checks and mostly “where to buy” inquiries. By the end of week eight, we redirected the phone lines back to the client’s customer care team and produced a final refund file as well as a file containing all of the contacts pertaining to the recall. We were then engaged to assist with one final task. At our recommendation, the client engaged us to craft a letter and send goodwill coupons to all of the contacts in the master file thanking them for their loyalty to the brand and their patience during the precautionary measures.

What Worked Well? One word – Communication

On the topic of external communications, we know from firsthand experience that well-crafted messaging is the greatest tool to have in the arsenal when it comes to communicating and managing any crisis. The messaging should be informative but succinct. It should highlight the impacted products, what to do with those products and how you will make them whole for the experience (coupons, refund checks, replacement product, etc.). The messaging should be consistent across print, websites, phone messaging, and social media. Most importantly, the message should convey remorse and concern for the safety of loyal customers.

For phone calls, this messaging should be on a dedicated toll free number and not be comingled with business as usual callers. We know that informative messaging can handle 60-70% of the call volume and those consumers never really need to speak to a live agent. In this case, the messaging clearly minimized consumer confusion and was an effective tool that reduced live agent staffing costs. Anecdotally, we collected and shared consumer verbatim comments thanking the client for their decision to remove the product from store shelves and letting them know they still love their products.

Internal communications are key as well. The rapid deployment in setting up any program can leave gaps in understanding. Communication to the client team needs to be clear and concise knowing that it will be quickly cascading through many layers of their organization. In addition we as “outsiders” are immersed in the client’s corporate culture when tensions and stress are very high. In this case, we were praised for our expertise and attentiveness and revered as a partner. In fact, we recently completed a consulting project where we’ve designed a crisis plan for the client which includes trigger points for their internal teams as well as industry partners.

The Challenges – There Are Always Challenges

In this case the greatest challenge we faced was not having control of the toll free number. The blockage callers experienced during the first days caused panic and a lack of confidence for consumers. It also pushed consumers to social media to publicly share their frustrations and allowed others to “pile on”. Thankfully once callers got through to the IVR and live reps were needed, the panic subsided.

Other challenges stemmed from incomplete or confusing communication from the retailers to their base. A good crisis plan has letter templates in place to help industry partners protect their customers while protecting the client’s brand.

Lastly, provisioning the amount of refund checks that were requested for this recall was a huge strain on the client’s internal accounting department. Premiere Response is able to manage fulfillment, particularly related to recalls. Our infrastructure allows us to process large refund and/or coupon files. Had the client opted for fulfillment support the cost would have been less than the cost to staff live agents to field the “where’s my refund” calls in the later weeks of the program.

The Solution

Premiere Response kept a common theme in responding to the needs of this crisis. The strong focus on People, Process and Technology proved to be a successful mantra for handling this crisis and demonstrating that customer service via any contact method is the core competency of Premiere Response.