Contact Center Trends

Abandoned: An ice storm in Texas and why call centers need to evolve

Genesis M Longo

By Génesis Longo

0 min read

What NOT to do to your customers during a natural disaster and how a contact center solution can help you to deliver better customer service.

I live in the heart of Houston, Texas. Though my apartment has been one of the fortunate few with power and water, my friends and neighbors have lacked these essential needs for 72 hours. As of this morning, a few have regained power, but water shortages continue. The storm has exposed the brittleness of our power and energy systems, resulting in impassable roads, disruption of vaccine distribution, and the death of 38 people nationwide.

A new perspective on contact centers and customer service.

The situation in Texas this week has given me a new perspective on the importance of agility and infrastructure, not just for our energy and power systems but also for call center technology. I’ve witnessed my friends desperately trying to use their five minutes of power to contact businesses and organizations, with no response, even in what could become life-threatening situations.

“When it comes to infrastructure, we are really bad at building for resilience and planning for extreme events, even when we know we should. We let systems age rather than update them, we choose paths of least resistance when expanding capacity, and we very rarely take into account climate and weather risk.” New York editor-at-large David Wallace-Wells

This week revealed that Texas’ customer service technology is not resilient or equipped to handle the extreme call volume that comes with severe weather as thousands of people attempt to place calls at the same time. Companies like AT&T have encouraged customers to try texting instead of calling—requiring fewer network resources but businesses and organizations continue to rely on “customer-service calls” without providing other options.

“In the event of a major power interruption, life-support customers are encouraged to contact AEP Texas’s toll-free customer service number to advise our representatives of their situation.”
American Electric Power, Texas

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Real-life challenges and customer service response.

It’s not only power companies with these challenges in handling customer inquiries, but organizations of all types. Below are anecdotes from my friends and me about our experiences: 

  • Pharmacies and groceries:I tried finding a pharmacy open in Houston. I called (store), pressed the right number to speak to the pharmacy, and couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I tried calling again, this time clicking the number for store hours, and the automated voice gave me outdated information. I went online to chat with an agent and couldn’t find a way to do so. How am I supposed to get in touch with them? The worst part is that I am scared to drive without knowing if they are open because of the road conditions.” 
  • Insurance companies: Apartments have flooded across the city of Houston as freezing pipes burst. My apartment was one of them. I tried calling my insurance for help, and no one picked up. I wasn’t even given a wait-time estimate on the phone and had no other ways of contacting them. My phone service was spotty, but I had some internet. If only there were a way to contact them online.”
  • Hotels: “We had to evacuate our home, and hotels in the area weren’t answering the phone. We had to make the trek ourselves, driving over 20 miles on slippery roads, without having anyone to contact to find out if the hotels we were driving to even had availability. These hotels are part of large chains. Shouldn’t they have been able to answer the phone and help?”

People have felt alone. Abandoned. Calling out for help with no one to listen. 

When no one answers.

I have no better words to describe what’s happening with call centers and customer support than this email from my friend Jennifer to her apartment complex:

“While I clearly agree with apartment staff staying safe and staying home, not being able to get in touch with anyone (not even the live voice service) was and is infuriating and dangerous. I have lived at the (apartment name) 6 years, and more than once, I have asked for a direct emergency number (different from the leasing office number) to be able to get in touch with a live person upon pickup. Not after a voice message. 

Left alone to fend for ourselves, we fought FOR 3 HOURS against a sprinkler water main break. While my neighbor was gone, tending to her elderly grandfather, her apartment filled up with inches and inches of water from the exterior-wall sprinkler pipe. When she finally got here and opened her door, a wall of water gushed out.

I called the non-emergency police and fire department numbers. I was told it was a city problem and also that “The fire department is not responding to fire alarms right now.”

I couldn’t get through to anyone at the city, and when I did, I was told to “Call a plumber.” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m not talking about someone’s pipe underneath their sink burst. I’m talking about the emergency water supply. The city needs to turn it off. He connected me back to the 311 city number I originally called. Which then started emitting fax noises.

The emergency line kept disconnecting every time we got through.  I finally called 911. Was told this wasn’t an emergency. Called the management company of the apartment complex. Nothing.

Called the apartments next door to us…a staff member at *another apartment building* PICKED UP!!!! And while he didn’t know exactly how to help as they had faced the same struggle over there, he was able to give me the number of a private company that helped them turn the water off.

Just that little bit of help made a huge difference. I was getting some kind of support.

Things could’ve been dangerously worse if a quick-thinking neighbor hadn’t come up and smartly turned off the breakers so we wouldn’t all get electrocuted!

As an out-of-state friend said: “And you realize how fragile the infrastructure is when no one answers your call for help.” NO ONE answered our calls for help. 

And while this is a statewide emergency and disaster and emergency services and staff are stretched thin and dealing with their own issues, having someone, somewhere—even an overseas call center—answer the phone and say, “Here is a direct line for the city since you can’t get through to 311.” Or “Here is the number to a private company that can turn off water mains…” etc. would’ve been SOMETHING and that something would’ve been welcome.”

There is a need for a robust, strong contact center solution.

I don’t mean to further sadden people’s days with the examples above, but I hope these anecdotes will remind us all why it is Talkdesk’s mission to improve the customer experience. Here are a few ways Talkdesk technology can mitigate some of the issues outlined above.

Offering support channels beyond phone calls.

Talkdesk CX Cloud is designed to accommodate customer interactions on several different channels, including chat, SMS, email, and social, just to name a few. This gives customers options. If one channel isn’t working, they still have a way to connect to the organization.

Ability to scale quickly to accommodate high call volumes.

Talkdesk is a cloud contact center platform, which means it’s accessible anywhere the internet is available. This gives organizations the flexibility to quickly add more agents in new locations, move agents to new areas, or allow agents to transition to work from home with little disruption to business as usual. Our easy-to-use technology also enables call centers to make changes to their interactive voice response (IVR) script, menu, or options on the fly to provide accurate and time-sensitive information.

‘Always-On’ service powered by AI.

Our virtual agent is designed to deliver the answers customers need whenever they need them, even if live agents aren’t available. By freeing up bandwidth for easily answered questions, live agents can focus on emergency and complex issues. 

More than just improving customer service.

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of being prepared for anything. Circumstances can change overnight, and companies and organizations need to revamp their technology, not just to ‘improve’ customer service and support, but to potentially save lives in times like these.

In closing, if you all know people in Texas, please reach out and make sure they’re okay.


Genesis M Longo

Génesis Longo

Génesis Miranda Longo is the head of industry marketing for retail and consumer goods. A Mexican immigrant and Cornell University grad, Génesis has spent most of her life in food, grocery, and CPG. In recent years, she has worked as a social media creator for well-known brands. Apart from work, Génesis loves cooking spicy food with her husband, increasing diversity in tech and higher education, and spending way too much on her dog, Sunny.