When Houston residents turned on the television in late October, most could only watch as Hurricane Sandy tore through New York and the East Coast. But for the workers at Houston 2-1-1, a free community information hotline, the storm was also a time to help those in need.
That’s because their New Jersey counterpart, NJ 2-1-1, was prepared for the storm and had the telecommunications infrastructure in place to route overflow calls to other centers not affected by the storm.
It could have been bad. New Jersey was one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, causing an estimated $29.4 billion in damages according to estimates by the office of NJ Governor, Chris Christie. Nearly 90,000 calls for help came into the NJ 2-1-1 hotline in the weeks after the hurricane.
Almost none of these calls would have been fielded if NJ 2-1-1 had not switched the year before to a cloud-based contact center solution through Five9 (News - Alert). The old infrastructure relied on three T-1 lines that went down during the hurricane and remained down for three weeks after the storm. But Five9’s Virtual Contact Center performed flawlessly.
“With the quantity of calls that were coming in, I was really concerned about the quality of service,” said Laura Zink Marx, executive director for NJ 2-1-1. “But I don't think it flickered once. It was very impressive.”
More than just reliable, Five9’s Virtual Contact Center also helped the NJ hotline handle the volume.
NJ 2-1-1, part of the United Way, is one of many 2-1-1 services throughout the U.S. that serve 190 million callers free information ranging from affordable housing, shelters, food assistance, employment training programs, senior services and medical insurance. Since the virtual call center made NJ 2-1-1 web-based, it could tap other centers such as Houston 2-1-1 for help during the storm.
On the second day of the hurricane, NJ 2-1-1 decided to dispatch 30 percent of inbound calls to Palm Beach 2-1-1 in Florida, then increase or decrease the flow as needed. In the following days, it also routed calls to Vermont 2-1-1, a second NJ 2-1-1 center, and the 2-1-1 service in Houston.
The routing was handled by Bill Kay, NJ 2-1-1’s telecommunications manager, who was trained by Five9 on managing the distribution of calls.
“It allowed me to do everything so fast—I was able to make any kind of change within minutes,” Kay said. “We had calls going out to other places, like a portal, and I could split up the traffic based on how busy they were and how busy we were.”
Routing call volume to partner centers was startlingly simple. “For almost anything that came up, I was able to figure it out and do what we needed to get done,” noted Kay.
Scaling infrastructure also was easy since the operation was entirely cloud-based.
When the calls coming in reached the tens of thousands, Kay was able to call Five9 and add extra software licenses and phone lines within hours. If NJ 2-1-1 had been using its old infrastructure, securing the additional capacity could have taken weeks.
With the advanced features offered through Virtual Contact Center, the hotline also was able to set up voicemail boxes on the fly for issues that could not be immediately addressed and set up unlimited recorded messages.
“With Five9, we got exactly what we wanted in terms of the phone system features, the flexibility, and how easy it was to manage the ebb and flow of calls with our partners. It was flawless,” said executive director Marx.
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Edited by Peter Bernstein