02/14/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Weather Shouldn't Ground Airline Call Centers

The 2013/2014 winter has tested the patience of air traveler as well as the capacity of airlines' call centers. Back to back ice and snow storms have repeatedly stranded customers all across the nation as flight cancellations ripple through the system. At the mercy of the airlines, there is little customers can do but ride it out, literally.

For the airlines, the frequency of these storms highlights their weak spots. Rerouting thousands of passengers in a system that has been stripped of excess capacity is a recipe for customer outrage. From JetBlue's policy to not fly in certain weather conditions to wait times of over five hours when calling Delta Airline's customer service is a surefire way of destroying customer goodwill. Directing passengers to websites to monitor travel alerts is not good enough when Grandma is stuck somewhere, completely outside of her element and ill-equipped to navigate the intricacies of air travel.

If you're in this week's East coast snow storm it doesn't matter if you're a frequent flyer. Calls this week to Delta Airlines' frequent flyer reservation number were greeted with a message that wait times were five or more hours. Air Canada had a wait time of two hours. Even the "call back" function failed. I'm still waiting for my "call back" and that was over 30 hours ago.

What happened here? The traditional call center model broke down. Most airline calls centers are in major metro areas which, ironically, are in areas hit by these winter storms. Delta Airlines, for example, has call centers in Minnesota, Cincinnati, Dallas, Tampa, Salt Lake City and Atlanta -- some of the very cities hit by the storms. After years of consolidating call centers and ending offshoring, the volume was just too much for the current infrastructure to handle.

There is a direct correlation between customer experience and loyalty. Fifty-six percent of companies believe their customer service can differentiate themselves from their competition; yet 86 percent of consumers quit doing business with a company because of a bad customer experience, according to Forrester Research and Harris Interactive.

It's time to rethink the call center model. Bringing 200 to 500 agents together into a call center during inclement weather is like asking the San Francisco ballet to perform Giselle on a floor covered in banana peels. Things are bound to go wrong somewhere in the production.

The unintended side effect of the call center breakdown is that it creates a vicious cycle. With each winter storm the traveling public will expect delays and "jump the gun" unnecessarily to reschedule their flights thereby increasing call center loads and unnecessary wait times.

A more effective call center model is a blended model of centralized call centers and a vast network of home-based agents scattered around the country. A home-based agent network can be dialed up or down based on call volume. It also enables companies to tap into a pool of skilled workers that its physical call centers can't access.

One technology company that enables companies to rethink their call center model is Five9. Based in Silicon Valley, Five9, offers a cloud-based contact center solution that any organization -- including airlines -- can use to create a virtual workforce of agents. Old-school contact center software required specialized hardware, software and telephony to make and receive calls onsite and required all of their agents to be in the brick-and-mortar office. With a cloud contact center solution agents don't need to be in the office to work, all they need to start taking calls is a computer, a headset and an Internet connection. That's a scalable model that makes sense.

As part of the $2.5 billion that Delta is planning on spending this year on fleet, facilities and technologies, according to Delta Sky Magazine, maybe it should also take a new look at their call center strategy.

"Using a cloud solution to enable agents to work from home isn't limited to airlines looking to weather the storm. Five9's customers have support agents working from home which has helped reduce costs while creating competitive differentiation," said Liz Osborn, vice president of product and solution marketing at Five9. "By hiring agents based on skills and experience and not location, we've even seen highly skilled agents willing to make less money for the opportunity to work from home. "

And Delta, forget about that call back. One of your superb ticket counter agents in Las Vegas took care of my somewhat complicated reservation change in less than five minutes